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A Look Back • Missouri Democrat nearly claims party's presidential nomination in 1912

A Look Back • Missouri Democrat nearly claims party's presidential nomination in 1912

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But for 172 votes and William Jennings Bryan’s silver tongue, Harry S Truman probably wouldn’t be the only president who hailed from Missouri.

James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark of Bowling Green, speaker of the U.S. House from 1911 to 1919, was Missouri’s favorite son and the front-runner going into the 1912 Democratic National Convention at the Baltimore armory. It was an exhausting event that ran from June 25 until July 2, when Clark’s support finally collapsed and his main rival, New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson, was nominated on the 46th ballot.

One week before, Republicans had imploded in a disastrous convention in Chicago, where they renominated President William Taft over former president Theodore Roosevelt’s vigorous objections. Roosevelt bolted and ran as an independent candidate, virtually assuring a Democratic victory in November.

Clark, born in Kentucky, moved to northeast Missouri at age 25 and got into local politics. He was elected to Congress in 1892 and became known as a folksy, powerful orator, diligent legislator and party organizer. Fellow Democrats made him minority leader in 1907 and speaker in 1911, after they won a House majority. Clark began angling for the White House.

His boosters sang a rewording of a popular ditty known as the “hound dog.” The Missouri delegation arrived in Baltimore with a pack of 16 Ozark hounds. Clark men took to calling themselves “houn’ dawgs.”

Clark won the first ballot on June 28 with 440.5 delegates to Wilson’s 324, with the remaining 323.5 split among seven also-rans. He pushed his support to 554.5 votes on the 13th ballot, but needed 726 — two thirds — to win. Determined to finish it, his operatives courted Charles “Silent Charlie” Murphy, boss of New York’s Tammany Hall machine.

That became Bryan’s cue to play kingmaker. The Nebraska populist may have led the Democrats to defeat three times as their presidential candidate, but he still held an electric grip on party sentiment. While Clark had won the Nebraska primary, Bryan hinted that he found Wilson more charming.

Bryan voted for Clark in the first rounds. But when New York threw its 90 delegates to Clark on June 29, he pounced: “I shall withhold my vote from Mr. Clark as long as New York votes for him.”

Clark condemned Bryan’s “outrageous aspersions” and took a fast train to Baltimore. He worked a long night from his hotel headquarters, but couldn’t stop the drift of delegates to Wilson.

The party offered Clark the vice-presidential nomination, but he said he’d take it only if Wilson repudiated Bryan — an impossible condition. Clark kept the House gavel seven more years and was defeated back home in the 1920 Republican landslide.

Clark, 70, died in Washington on March 2, 1921, two days after leaving office. He was buried in Bowling Green.

His son, Bennett Clark, served Missouri in the U.S. Senate from 1933 until 1945, the year Truman became president. Champ Clark is the only Missourian to have served as House speaker. The bridge over the Mississippi River at Louisiana, Mo., is named in his honor.

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Tim O'Neil is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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