BOWLING GREEN—Today’s political conventions are not the rough-and-tumble events that they were 100 years ago. By convention time the presidential nominee has usually already been chosen. That wasn’t the case for either party in 1920. Among those mentioned as possible candidates for the Democratic Party was Bowling Green’s own Champ Clark.
Most Pike County citizens know that Champ Clark was a leading contender in the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination as president in 1912. Clark was denied the nomination—and the likely election—as U.S. president because of the treachery of William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 1896, 1900 and in 1908.
Most historians believe that Bryan attacked Clark because Bryan himself was trying to be the party’s nominee for the fourth time. Even though Bryan was pledged to vote for Clark’s nomination, on the 14th ballot Bryan endorsed New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson. On the 46th ballot, Wilson was nominated and in November of that year was elected as our 28th president.
Clark had first come to Washington as the representative of Missouri’s Ninth District in 1892. By 1910, Clark was elected as the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives and in 1912, Clark became speaker of the House. In the years when Bryan was running for president, Clark was one of his strongest supporters and campaigned hard for Bryan. Wilson rewarded Bryan for his treachery against Clark at the convention with the position of secretary of state in Wilson’s Cabinet. Despite the conniving of Wilson and Bryan, Clark was always a party man and helped get much of president Wilson’s proposed legislation passed. Wilson was re-elected president in 1916 and in 1920 the Democratic Party was looking for a new leader. In the meantime, Clark continued as the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives until a Republican majority took control of the House after the election of 1918. Clark again became the minority leader in Congress.
The Detroit Free Press began suggesting that Clark be the party’s nominee in 1920. According to the Free Press, “The people also remember that he (Clark) would have been the nominee of his party in 1912 if Woodrow Wilson had not begun his precedent-shattering career by sticking in the contest at Baltimore after Clark had won a substantial majority of the votes in the convention. According to all the rules of the political game in Democratic conventions, Bryan should have subsided and Wilson should have withdrawn.”
The St. Louis Times reported that “Clark’s friends plan to present his name at the first indication of a deadlock” in the convention. The Times also reported that “The former speaker has several times stated he is not a candidate but has indicated his willingness to accept the nomination ‘If drafted.’”
In regards to Bryan, who was still a force in Democratic politics, the Times stated “…the differences between W.J. Bryan and Clark, as the result of the former’s effort in behalf of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, which kept the Missourian out of the presidency, have been settled and Bryan will back Clark at San Francisco.”
The Hartford Connecticut Courant reported in April 1920 “Champ Clark of Missouri, the former speaker of the House, while the Democrats controlled Congress, will probably be brought forward again before the Democratic National Convention as a candidate for the presidency. Clark, at Baltimore in 1912, had a majority of the delegates on 30 ballots. Bryan, Clark’s longtime friend, for whom he had traveled and stumped at his own expense, turned against him and denounced him, not for Wilson’s sake, but to create a diversion by which he (Bryan) himself would profit.”
But Champ’s run for the Democratic nomination in 1920 was short lived. Gov. James Cox of Ohio received the nomination on the 44th ballot. Cox lost the election of 1920 to the Republican candidate, Warren Harding, a U.S. senator also from Ohio. Had Champ got the nomination and won the election for president in 1920 he would have, at age 70, been the oldest person elected as president. William Henry Harrison held that title, at age 69, until the election of Donald Trump, at age 70, in 2016.
The election of November 1920 was not good to Champ, either. After serving as the representative for the 9th District of Missouri for 26 years, Champ was turned out of office in the Republican landslide of 1920. Champ’s health began to fail, and on March 2, 1921, Champ Clark died just two days before his last term in office would have ended.
Larry Twellman is the president of the Camp Clark House board of directors.