Presidential Race
4:49 pm
Sun March 18, 2012

Just Who Is Leonard Wood, Anyway?

Originally published on Wed March 21, 2012 10:18 am

Former House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has been calling his opponent Mitt Romney the weakest front-runner in modern times.

On CNN, he clarified it when he said the former Massachusetts governor is probably the "weakest front-runner since Leonard Wood in 1920."

So, who was Leonard Wood?

Wood was a U.S. general, as well as a doctor, and a very close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss. He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that Wood was running for president before the 1920 Republican convention and was thought to be a shoo-in for the nomination.

"A lot of people thought he was going to be nominated ... [but] he reached his peak and then flamed out," Beschloss says. "He finally lost the nomination to Warren Harding, the senator from Ohio, one of the worst presidents in American history."

So if Romney is Wood, does that make Gingrich the Harding in this analogy?

"I think [Gingrich] would consider it slander if it was said by someone else," Beschloss says.

Wood was not a great candidate, Beschloss says, but Harding owed him a lot. If not for his poor candidacy, Harding would not have become president, he says.

"The result was that Wood got what he really wanted, which was to be governor general of the Philippines," he says.

Wood died in 1927, but his legacy lives on at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

If Romney makes it to the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., this summer, and has not locked in a majority of delegates, Beschloss says he could in fact compete with Wood for being the "weakest front-runner."

"If that happens, [there's] a good chance Romney will not be nominated and there could be a dark horse like Warren Harding or someone a lot better who ends up getting the nomination," he says.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

One final note here about Newt Gingrich and presidential history, lately, the former speaker has been calling Mitt Romney the weakest front-runner in modern times. He did so on this program a few weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NEWT GINGRICH: He is the weakest front-runner in modern times despite outspending the rest of us by more than three to one.

RAZ: And last week on CNN, he clarified that.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS PROGRAM)

GINGRICH: The fact is Romney is probably the weakest Republican front-runner since Leonard Wood in 1920.

RAZ: So Newt Gingrich raises a very, very important question. And that is, who is Leonard Wood?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Good question. This has probably been the best week for Leonard Wood in about the last 80 years.

RAZ: That's presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

BESCHLOSS: Leonard Wood was a general, very close friend of Theodore Roosevelt. They did the Rough Riders together. They were in the battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba. He was also a doctor. Wood was running for president before the 1920 Republican convention and was thought to be a shoo-in.

RAZ: Was Leonard Wood among the weakest front-runners in American history?

BESCHLOSS: He was in a sense because a lot of people thought he's going to be nominated. There were four ballots. He reached his peak and flamed out. He finally lost the nomination to Warren Harding, the senator from Ohio, one of the worst presidents in American history. So what Newt Gingrich is essentially saying is...

RAZ: I'm Warren Harding.

BESCHLOSS: ...I'm going to be Harding. I think he would consider it slander if it was said by someone else.

RAZ: Michael, we actually unearthed a recording of Leonard Wood giving a speech. This is on Americanism. That's the theme of the speech. Let's listen to it. This is from 1920.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

LEONARD WOOD: Americanization must be taken up earnestly and systematically. America first must be stamped upon every heart.

RAZ: OK. A little bit difficult to understand, but he's talking about Americanization, that everybody needs to speak the language of the Declaration of Independence, nobody should be waving the red flag, which is a major threat to American democracy. What kind of candidate was he?

BESCHLOSS: Not a great one. If you hear that voice, even in 1920, that's not exactly a barn-burning speech or huge personality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

WOOD: ...with equality of privilege and opportunity goes equality of obligation in war and in peace.

BESCHLOSS: But he had been in Cuba, he had been in the Philippines, and one of the things he felt very strongly was those places should be Americanized. There were a lot of people who felt the same way in 1920.

RAZ: What happens to Leonard Wood?

BESCHLOSS: Well, Harding owed him a lot, because if Wood had not been such a bad candidate, Harding would not have been president. The result was Wood got what he really wanted, which was to be governor-general of the Philippines. He died in 1927 but ultimately got a terrific military fort, which still exists in Missouri.

RAZ: Yeah, Fort Leonard Wood.

BESCHLOSS: Indeed.

RAZ: Do you think the Romney-Wood comparison is apt?

BESCHLOSS: It's apt in this respect. If Mitt Romney makes it to Tampa and he has not got a locked-in majority of those delegates, he could actually compete with Leonard Wood for being the weakest front-runner. And if that happens, a good chance that Romney will not be nominated, and there could be a dark horse, like Warren Harding or someone a lot better who ends up getting that nomination.

RAZ: That's presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Mike, thanks.

BESCHLOSS: My pleasure, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.