Presidential Campaigns That Made The Nation
By David LaChance
Forget White House coffees and Buddhist temple fundraisers. A century ago, William McKinley’s brilliant political tactician, Mark Hanna, used to return from meetings with Wall Street bankers weighed down with bulging moneybags. Marcus Alonzo Hanna, a successful Ohio businessman who liked McKinley’s opposition to free trade, helped the nominee raise an unheard of $3.5 million for his 1896 campaign, turning the cash into a landslide of pamphlets, buttons, pins and posters that buried his opponent, populist William Jennings Bryan. "He raised soft money, hard money, every kind of money," says Warren Goldstein, chairman of the department of history at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Just when you think that presidential campaigns have never been so negative and dirty, or so dominated by big money and big media., along comes The Will of the People? Presidential Campaigns That Made the Nation, running through January 31 at the University of Hartford’s Museum of American Political Life. The tactics that campaigns have employed in this uniquely American way of choosing a leader are laid bare in this freewheeling exhibit. The materials are drawn from the museum’s trove of 45,000 campaign items, considered one of the most comprehensive and distinguished collections of its kind in the world. The exhibit explores two centuries of influencing the vote, drawing a line that leads from the maneuverings that helped land Thomas Jefferson in. the White House in 1800, through Ronald Reagan’s painstakingly choreographed 1980 run, to the current season of sound bites, soft money and irrelevant conventions.
The exhibit "demonstrates the rich legacy of visual material that accompanied campaigns, and what that represented was this constant desire for the candidate to make some kind of contact with the American people—which still exists today," said Zina Davis, the museum’s director. Focusing on the elections of 1800 (Thomas Jefferson vs. John Adams), 1828 (Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams), 1860 (Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas, John Bell, and John Breckenridge), 1896 (William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan), 1932 (Franklin Delano Roosevelt vs. Herbert Hoover) and 1980 (Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter), the exhibit, compiled by curators Goldstein and Edmund Sullivan, helps visitors discover the answer to that nagging election-year question: How did things ever get this way?
The displays show how "political parties organize Americans’ political ideas and tendencies and feelings so that they can be deployed in the service of electing candidates," says Goldstein. Agrees Sullivan, a retired professor who writes and lectures widely on campaign history, "It’s crass advertising at one point and subtle manipulation at another." Those expecting civics-class notions of thoughtful voters casting ballots after a full airing of the issues of the day may be surprised by the clashes of egos and ideals on display. Consider one of the items in the exhibit, a mock 50-cent piece from the McKinley-Bryan clash. Over a caricature of Bryan, the coin declares, "In God We Trust." Under the caricature is the punch line: "For the Other 47 Cents." Bryan advocated free coinage of silver, a popular idea with the new Western states but a threat to the establishment East. So Hanna hammered home the idea that Bryan’s plan would lead to worthless money. For those who didn’t get the point, yet another bogus coin spelled out the evils America could expect from Bryan’s plan: "socialism," "anarchy," "lunacy," "idleness" and "starvation." Not good. If the "bimetallism" debate seems distant now, substitute campaign finance reform, or even abortion, as the subject. Goldstein says, "Working people understood it in a way that college professors don’t now."
If there’s a single figure responsible for much of the way things are today, it’s Hanna. "He’s the guru," Sullivan says. "Hanna was so significant that to this day he’s considered probably the finest political strategist this country has ever seen. All his progeny today, they’re there because of Mark Hanna. The (James) Carvilles and the telemarketers and the direct mailings and the demographers—the whole gang of ’em. He’s the first one to be able to demonstrate that you take money, media and strategists, and in a sense, each feeds off the other."
Cutthroat attacks are nothing new. A 1793 drawing, "A Peep Into the AntiFederal Club," skewers Jefferson as a man who lusts only for power, while the devil himself looks on, musing, "What a pleasure it is to see one’s work thrive so well." It’s a reminder of a time when it was something of an epithet to call anyone a small-d democrat. The framers established not a democracy, Goldstein points out, but a republic, with the federal government, in fact, well insulated from the will of the people. Jefferson was vilified as an atheist, pagan and traitor in a truly brutal campaign. "It was a level of political invective that makes our current politicians look mealy-mouthed, like milquetoasts. Unbelievable," Goldstein marvels. Jefferson, too, knew how to play the game: "It was in that campaign that Jefferson, while considering a calculated public appearance, noted that ‘sometimes it is useful to furnish occasions for the flame of public opinion to break out,’" Goldstein says. By the time Andrew Jackson made his second run for the White House in 1828, western expansion had shifted the balance of political power, and a number of states had dropped property requirements for voting. It heralded "the so-called rise of the common man," Sullivan says. "There’s a whole new ballgame. Cities are growing; we’re beginning to see a middle class, a working class, a blue-collar voter." A drawing of Jackson as a frontiersman doesn’t stretch the truth as much as you might think: Jackson was, in fact, one of only two presidents born in a log cabin (the other was Andrew Johnson). While Jackson obeyed custom and stayed home during the campaign, his Democratic Party, largely created by "The Little Magician," Martin Van Buren, whipped up the electorate in support, holding rallies, bonfires and parades. When the ballots were counted, John Quincy Adams, Jackson’s National Republican opponent, never knew what hit him.
Today, politics tends to be a private affair, and many would consider a question about their views of the candidates an intrusion. But when Lincoln ran against Douglas in 1860, the appetite for politics was so keen that an industry had grown up to supply all manner of campaign bric-a-brac, for a price. In the museum display are catalogs crammed full of clothing, banners and buttons, as well as the actual items, such as elaborate kerosene torches for nighttime parades. The centerpiece of the museum, a lifesize diorama, recreates one such rally, a "Wide-Awake Club" held for Lincoln in Hartford. Anyone turned off by the distant, mass-media approach of modern campaigns can be forgiven for longing for the flag-raisings and maypoles and turkey shoots that were part of what Goldstein calls "the boisterous public life of politics."
Here’s a Rosetta stone of modern-day manipulation of the media: a bulging folder provided by Matthew Lawson, an advance man for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 run against Jimmy Carter. In page after page after page, Lawson tells local organizing groups how to leave nothing to chance, not even so-called spontaneous events. If you’ve ever seen a clump of cheering, banner-waving supporters keep a television camera trained on them rather than panning to the vacant places all around them, then you’ve seen Lawson’s work. His number one lesson: "Public perception is political reality."
"From that point on, we’ve had highly financed, media-driven campaigns in which the image is the reality," Sullivan says. The national party conventions, which had been made moot by the primary system, became nothing more than orchestrated coronations, as network television captured every scripted moment.
There is, of course, much more to see at the museum, which opened in 1989. You’ll find among the collection "Madly for Adlai" and "I Like Ike" nylons; a prohibition-era "No Beer, No Work" pin; a television screen that plays the Willie Horton ad used against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 campaign; a "Dimes for Dick" card created by Nixon’s 1960 campaign in the style of the March of Dimes; and a bar of Gold Water Soap, "The Soap for Conservative People" that claims to offer "four-year protection." The heart of the museum is the breathtaking, 70-foot History Wall, which contains relics from every election and places them in context with milestones in American and world history, and significant cultural and social trends.
So, as George W. Bush and Al Gore head for their big showdown, where are we headed?
Will candidates continue to pour millions upon millions into television advertising, leaving fewer and fewer bits of memorabilia behind? Will the new medium of the Internet affect politics, as it did when free-trade opponents organized their protests in Seattle? Will Ralph Nader’s Green Party and Pat Buchanan’s Reform Party have a lasting impact, as third parties have in the past?
See the evidence, and then make up your own mind.
The Museum of American Political Life is located on the campus of the University of Hartford at 200 Bloomfield Avenue, West Hartford, Connecticut. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from I I a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. There is no charge for admission.
David LaChance is a freelance writer living in Western Massachusetts.
Presidential memorabilia on exhibit at Harrison Home
The President Benjamin Harrison Home, located in Indianapolis, Indiana, will commemorate the millennium with an exhibit of presidential memorabilia in one of the largest and most historically representative collections of campaign materials ever gathered for public viewing.
"Campaign Through the Centuries," which runs through November 10 at the Benjamin Harrison Home on North Delaware Street in Indianapolis, displays an entire floor of chronologically-exhibited campaign memorabilia from the early 1800s through 1996 including ribbons, medals and papers items of the early candidates and many three-dimensional campaigns items from the 1930s through the 1970s.
Museum officials say that in the early presidential elections in this country it was considered improper to show any lust for winning the office. It was an honor, but not something sought. Therefore, there are no artifacts for these elections. Early inaugural and commemorative pieces precede the campaign items, but they were not created for campaign purposes.
It was the fierce election of 1928, between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams which showed the beginning of change for election protocol. By then, most states allowed the voting public to choose the presidential electors. That campaign was the first to try to sway public opinion but not until the 1840 election did they go "down to the people." A boom of campaign banners, buttons, ribbons and trinkets followed.
A multitude of regionally produced campaign items were produced in the mid-1800s with the rallying cry of "Tipecanoe and Tyler Too," a campaign which boasted a parade in Cincinnati three miles long. These were the beginnings of the great campaigns which represents collections from U.S. Presidential sites across the country.
Along with the special exhibit, antique and collectible enthusiasts will enjoy a tour of the 1875 Italianate home which is furnished with many of Harrison family artifacts including Victorian glassware and furnishing. A regina music box, landscapes by T. C. Steele, Martha Wood Belcher and Jacob Cox, along with a grand piano with mother-of-pearl inlays and ivory scalloped keys add to the elegance of the home.
Visitors will even have the opportunity to stand in the dining room where Harrison entertained his supporters during the 1888 presidential campaign. The exhibit is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and on Sunday from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. with tours beginning each half hour. Further information can be obtained by calling (317) 631-1888 or on the website www.surf-ici.com/harrison.
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