If you think the 2012 presidential election is shaping up to be a lively one, you should have been around in 1912.

A hundred years ago, former President Theodore Roosevelt was so upset with his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, that Roosevelt challenged him for the Republican nomination. When he failed to win that, Roosevelt started his own party.

That paved the way for the victory of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who most likely couldn't have beat either Taft or Roosevelt in a head-to-head election.

Further stirring up the mix that year was Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate, who made a strong showing at a time when relations between labor and capital were deeply rancorous.

Wilson ended up with 6.3 million votes, to 4.1 million for Roosevelt, 3.5 million for Taft and 900,000 for Debs.

To understand what a wild election year that was, imagine if Bill Clinton were to form a third party to run against Barack Obama, and both ran against Mitt Romney. Then add a separate campaign by Ralph Nader, with Nader winning almost 8 million votes.

Throw in treason

To keep the parallels going, you'd have to imagine Nader being sent to prison for treason six years after the election.

That's what happened to Debs. In 1918, he spoke out against U.S. involvement in World War I, for which he was arrested and convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917.

All this is told in James Chace's book, "1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs -- the Election That Changed the Country."

There were big, important issues on the minds of just about everybody in America during that volatile election year.

The number of urban poor people was rising, swelled by recent immigration, and many of them were desperate, working for subsistence wages in what Chace calls "squalid sweatshops." Politics was mostly controlled by corrupt party bosses, pressure was mounting to give women the right to vote and threats to the environment were fueling a push for conservation.

"Above all," Chace says, "there was the question of how to deal with the excesses of big business," especially the great trusts.

It was consoling, somehow, to think how momentous that election must have seemed to people at the time. This election year doesn't seem quite so important, though certain partisans labor day and night to convince us that the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. It's as if they can rally the troops only by keeping them in a state of mouth-frothing excitement.

If momentous times call forth outsize figures like Teddy Roosevelt, where are the great leaders this year? Is the country just out of such people, or are these times not quite so dire as we are asked to believe?

Very smart, very mean

Speaking out outsize figures, another book I read recently was Ron Chernow's "Alexander Hamilton." In the early years of the Republic, politics were as serious as death.

Thomas Jefferson and his allies thought their opponents were always just on the verge of bringing back a king and a corrupt aristocracy. Hamilton and his allies thought Jefferson was plotting to usher in rule by the rabble, an American version of the French Revolution, with guillotines on every corner.

Chernow says that explains why, at a time when the "intellectual caliber" of the leading politicians eclipsed that of all future generations, "their animosity toward one another has seldom been exceeded either."

That brings up one more recent read: Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." I really had no plan in reading all these books about politics, but I'm glad I did.

As these books reminded me, we've been through much tougher times than these, and even some of the greatest figures in our history have behaved in reprehensible ways.

Except for Abe Lincoln, of course. He really was a great man, quite possibly the greatest man I know anything about. But if it takes a bloody Civil War to call forth another Lincoln, I guess I can wait.

In the meantime, I recommend these books for your summer reading list. They might help keep you sane during the coming onslaught of mudslinging, rock-throwing and political attack ads apparently produced by juvenile delinquents.

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