Beware of Years That End in 13

Before this one, the last year that ended in “13” turned out to be one of the unluckiest in American political history. Now comes word from astronomers that a recently discovered comet is heading our way in 2013, predicted by some to blaze ten times brighter than a full moon. If you’re afflicted with triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13), or if you believe the old myth that a comet is a bad omen, you’re already looking forward to 2014.

I’m not superstitious, but I earnestly hope 2013 doesn’t bring us anything as calamitous as 1913 did. It was a disastrous year that we’re still paying a hefty, annual price for a full century later.

The presidential election of 1912 featured three main contenders: Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat; William Howard Taft, the Republican incumbent; and former president Theodore Roosevelt, the candidate of the Progressive (or “Bull Moose”) Party. Teddy remains an overrated politician, but he was a colorful and commanding figure whose daughter Alice summed him up well: “My father always wanted to be the baby at every christening, the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral.” His vanity and animosity for Taft handed the election of 1912 to Wilson, arguably the worst president of the 44 who have held the office. His first of two dreadful terms commenced in March 1913.

Wilson’s racism and philandering are now legendary among serious historians. As president of Princeton University, he barred blacks from the campus. As President of the United States, he ordered the segregation of all departments within the executive branch and appointed ardent segregationists to high positions. He covered up his adulterous affairs while posturing as a man of personal integrity. He led us into a major war he had promised to avoid, then campaigned for a peace treaty that all but guaranteed the next great conflict. He locked up political dissidents right and left as he trampled on the Constitution’s guarantees of speech, assembly, and press freedoms. His wartime economic controls were hideously stupid and counterproductive.

1913 would rank as an unlucky year if all that had happened was Wilson’s ascendancy to the presidency. Three things he helped give us that year, however, make it unforgettable in the most pejorative sense: the income tax, the direct election of U.S. senators, and the Federal Reserve System.

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