Some 110 years before Donald Trump was arraigned in a federal court in Miami, Theodore Roosevelt was running to regain the White House, too. And a small-town newspaper absolutely hammered him.

“Roosevelt lies and curses in a most disgusting way; he gets drunk, too, and that not infrequently, and all his intimates know it,” read an October 1912 editorial in the Ishpeming (Mich.) Iron Ore, beneath the headline “The Roosevelt Way.”

“All who oppose him are wreckers of the country, liars, knaves, and undesirables,” the Iron Ore said. “He alone is pure and entitled to a halo. Rats. For so great a fighter, self-styled, he is the poorest loser we ever knew!”

Roosevelt, who was campaigning under the Bull Moose Party, was furious and, after surviving an assassination attempt in Milwaukee, filed a libel lawsuit against the Iron Ore and its wealthy editor-owner, George A. Newett, seeking $10,000 in damages, worth more than $300,000 today. The suit — a landmark case, involving a former president who became his own star witness — was filed just before the 1912 election, in which Roosevelt finished second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson and ahead of Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, an old friend he had turned against.

Roosevelt’s suit probably would be thrown out under current U.S. defamation law, which since 1964 has required proof that a defendant knowingly published or broadcast lies. And the Iron Ore was only a small weekly, with fewer than 3,000 subscribers. But Roosevelt, one of Trump’s favorite presidents, said he wanted to end once and for all widespread gossip about his drinking during his failed presidential comeback.

A conservative newspaper in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Iron Ore had supported Roosevelt in 1904, but it turned on him after Roosevelt attacked Republicans in 1912. Newett “belongs to the extremist school of the old line Republican party,” the New York Times wrote, and “lashed his opponents” with “a merciless pen.” He doubled down on Roosevelt after he was sued, claiming the Milwaukee shooting was “a put up job” to win votes and the cartridge was loaded “with a dried pea.”

The trial, which made headlines around the world, began May 26, 1913, in a small county courtroom in Marquette, Mich. Lawyers for both sides grilled potential jurors about the case. One, a lumber camp foreman named Robert Bruce, claimed he hadn’t heard anything.

“The class of men I’d have to associate with in the woods don’t read much and don’t discuss public matters much,” Bruce said.

“Very good, very good,” Roosevelt, then 54, exclaimed from his seat.

Bruce was picked for the 12-man jury, along with four miners, three drivers of horse-drawn wagons, two farmers, a locomotive fireman and a blacksmith. The jurors were sequestered, just before midnight.

The next day, spectators applauded when Roosevelt entered the jammed courtroom and craned their necks to see him. They buzzed when the ex-president took the stand for questioning by his lead attorney, James H. Pound. The Washington Evening Star called it “probably a unique occasion in history”; London newspapers printed glossaries of American drinks.

After briefly reviewing his life’s story, Roosevelt quickly and forcefully beat back the Iron Ore’s most explosive charge.

“I have never been drunk or in the slightest degree under the influence of liquor,” he said, then went on, with detail: “I have never drunk a cocktail or a highball in my life. With the exceptions hereafter noted, I never drank whiskey or brandy, except under the advice of a physician. I don’t care for the taste of either. I never have drunk beer, nor do I drink red wine. The only wines I have drunk have been white wines, Madeira, champagne or very occasionally, a glass of sherry.”

He noted there was a bed of mints at the White House, “and I may have drunk half a dozen mint juleps a year, and certainly no more.”

A parade of Roosevelt’s friends, associates and Secret Service agents followed to back up his testimony. “Yesterday you couldn’t throw a brick in the courtroom without hitting an ex-Cabinet officer, an ex-governor or somebody like that,” the Times reported.

Jacob Riis, a longtime friend and noted social reformer, said the strongest language he ever heard Roosevelt use was “by Godfrey.” The idea that anyone ever saw Roosevelt drunk, testified John O’Laughlin, a former assistant secretary of state, “seems absolutely silly to me.” Navy Surgeon General Presley Rixey said he observed Roosevelt throughout his presidency, and “he couldn’t have got drunk without my knowing it.”

In a deposition, Adm. George Dewey said Roosevelt’s lively manner might make some people think he had been drinking. “I have seen Mr. Roosevelt at dinners where he would be full of spirits, full of life and animation. All who knew him knew his peculiarities in this respect,” Dewey said.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Newett was struggling to find witnesses to testify against Roosevelt.

The Washington newspaperman J. Martin Miller claimed in a deposition that Roosevelt, at the House speaker’s birthday party, had been offered a “little drink” and countered that he would have “a big one,” of whiskey. But Miller, who was wanted on charges of larceny, had fled to Canada. The former congressman H. Olin Young, a Republican rival who knew Roosevelt in Washington, suddenly couldn’t be located. The Associated Press speculated that the two sides secretly had worked out a settlement, but nothing was ever announced.

On May 31, the trial took a dramatic turn. Newett took the stand and pulled out four typewritten sheets of paper that he read. He said he was a teetotaler and had criticized Roosevelt in good faith. Then he capitulated.

“In the face of the unqualified testimony of so many distinguished men who have been in position for years to know the truth, I am forced to the conclusion that I was mistaken,” Newett said. “I am unwilling longer to assert that Mr. Roosevelt actually and in fact drank to excess.”

The spectators sat in stunned silence. Reporters scurried to get reports out to a telegraph service that had been set up. Roosevelt whispered to one of his lawyers. When Newett finished, the former president rose from where he was sitting and addressed the court.

“In view of the statement by the defendant,” he said, “I shall ask the court to instruct the jury that I desire only nominal damages. I did not go into this suit for money. I did not go into it with any vindictive purpose. I have achieved my purpose, and I am content.” Then he raised a clenched fist.

Judge Richard Flannigan ordered a 15-minute recess. Spectators rushed to congratulate Roosevelt. “He was in the center of a struggling mass that nearly tore him apart,” the Times reported. “We put it through, by George,” Roosevelt shouted.

When court resumed, Judge Flannigan said Roosevelt deserved the full damages of $10,000 but instructed the jury to award nominal damages, which under Michigan law was 6 cents. After the jurors returned with that verdict, Roosevelt walked over to shake their hands. “I thank you, gentlemen, each of you,” he said. “It was splendid, just perfectly splendid.”

Roosevelt headed out a side door and was driven away in a friend’s car, as he waved his hat out a window.

His quest to regain the presidency had failed, but in court he had won his reputation back, in a landslide.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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