A few weeks ago, disgusted by the desperate tactics of the McCain campaign, I started to feel that this had to be the ugliest, most divisive and grueling presidential campaign in the history of this country. In the light of day, and perhaps buoyed by poll numbers that place the candidate I support far ahead of his opponent, I’m taking a step back and remembering how we say exactly the same thing every four years. Has this election really been uglier than the last two featuring Bush, Cheney, and Karl Rove’s bag of tricks? Or Daddy Bush’s infamous Willie Horton debacle? Can you name a campaign in your lifetime that didn’t descend into the depths, prompting all of us to decry negative campaigning even as we lapped it up (assuming the attacks weren’t aimed at our candidate)?
When the final nail is hammered into the coffin of Election 2008, I don’t think it’ll even make the Top Ten list of hideous campaigns (although Bush’s hijinks in the 2000 election certainly will). The presidential campaign of 1828 was so vicious that Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachel had a complete nervous breakdown and died of a heart attack three days before her husband’s inauguration. Yikes—that’s even worse than what happened to poor Kitty Dukakis. Jackson never forgave his political enemies for what he considered the “murder” of his beloved wife.
Both political parties today love to invoke the names of our Founding Fathers as paragons of virtue and true American values who would never sink to ugly tactics during an election year. Yet during the early years of this country, the 1800 presidential election witnessed some of the most vile smear campaigns in history, instigated by not one but THREE of our founding fathers. When President John Adams decided to run for re-election that year, imagine his surprise when his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson, made the decision to challenge his boss for the nomination. (I’m surprised Dick Cheney didn’t try that in 2004—maybe he couldn’t find his way out of his undisclosed location.) During Adams’ years in office, he and Jefferson had developed an intense dislike for each other. Adams thought Jefferson was a radical extremist who was in bed with French revolutionaries. Jefferson thought Adams was too much of a kiss-ass to the British royal family and he publicly referred to the overweight President as “his rotundity.” The Adams campaign to re-elect the President began a whispering campaign to discredit Jefferson, bringing up his relationship with Sally Hemings and the mulatto children he fathered. Because of Jefferson’s strong feelings about the separation of church and state, Adams also accused him of being an atheist and tried to convince the American people that if elected Jefferson would burn down churches and outlaw the Bible. Jefferson, in turn, accused Adams of being an unpatriotic tyrant whose kowtowing to the British royal family would undo the American Revolution. Founding father Alexander Hamilton got into the act as well when a private letter he wrote attacking Adams’ character and policies was made into a widely distributed pamphlet for the Jefferson campaign.
This weekend I was knee-deep in the archives of the Los Angeles Times from 1908 reading articles about Halloween from that year. No reason, I’m just insane and wanted to see how the holiday was celebrated in this city a hundred years ago. Did you know that back then Halloween was a multi-day affair? Thursday, October 29th was “doorbell night” with young people ringing neighborhood doorbells and hiding out of sight. When the door closed, they’d ring the doorbell again and then hide again until the homeowner finally grew tired of the ruse and ignored the ringing. Friday, October 30th was “gate night” in 1908. Halloween pranksters would take the front gate off of houses in the neighborhood and then hang them on nearby trees. Sheds, outhouses, and anything else on the property that wasn’t nailed down would be overturned.
On October 31st, kids would wander through the neighborhood in costume trick-or-treating as they do today, but there were far more tricks for houses that didn’t come up with the goods. In 1908, the Los Angeles Police Department sent out its entire force to try to stop the shenanigans.
An army of blue-coated “goblins,” with brass buttons and shining stars, stalked the streets last night and terrified the boys who tried Halloween pranks. Clarence Erway, 16 years old, of No. 902 Sunset boulevard, was caught while rolling a telephone cable spool on a street car track in front of his home, and was taken to the Police Station. He was charged with a felony and will be prosecuted by the street railway company. Several attempts were made to grease the rails, but the boys were driven off before any damage was done. A crowd of boys stole about eight gallons of ice cream from Morley’s Dancing Academy, where a Halloween party was held. A gate was carried away at No. 839 West Sixth street and the windows were broken in a real estate office on Vermont avenue.
But what really struck me about the articles is that, like this year, the country was finally nearing the end of a bitter presidential campaign. The popular Republican President, Theodore Roosevelt, had decided to honor his campaign pledge and not run for a third term. Roosevelt had convinced the Republicans to nominate his close friend and Secretary of War, William Howard Taft. The Democrats hadn’t won a national election since Grover Cleveland in 1892 and they were desperate to reverse their fates. They nominated popular lawyer William Jennings Bryan who’d been a major player in the Democratic Party and had already been the nominee twice before, in the elections of 1896 and 1900 which he lost to William McKinley.
By Halloween, Bryan was trailing badly in the polls, and some say was the victim of a partisan Halloween prank when his train to Chicago was delayed for so many hours that his chance to rev up his supporters who were gathered in Chicago were dashed.
The Halloween sprites that carry off front doors and gates and lower cats down chimneys, played their prize prank last night when they kidnapped William Jennings Bryan and thwarted his plan to make one last desperate stand in Chicago. He had been advertised to appear at four mass meetings in the city, and the meetings were in progress when word came that the Bryan special had broken down in Indiana, and that the candidate would be unable to appear.
Mr. Bryan finally reached the city at 12:30 this morning. He looked worn out and travel-stained and his voice was a mere shred. With him was Mrs. Bryan. “You ought to be in jail,” exclaimed the local Democratic Party head reproachfully as he extended his hand. “The biggest crowds you ever saw waited for you all evening!”
“I couldn’t help it,” pleaded the candidate.
Were Taft’s emissaries responsible for the delay of the train? Possibly, but it wouldn’t have mattered, Bryan was already toast. Of his three presidential campaigns, he suffered his biggest loss in 1908. Taft received 321 electoral votes to Bryan’s measly 162.
Like today, it hadn’t been a pretty campaign and the American people were exhausted and ready to move on. But in marked contrast to today, Bryan’s support came mostly in the South and he was lagging far behind in the Northeast. The Republicans tried to convince voters that Bryan was a religious fanatic who surrounded himself with anarchists who would wreck the economy.
There were lots of topsy-turvy moments in the 1908 campaign if we consider how the two parties are viewed today. It was the Democratic candidate who was a fierce opponent of evolution and wanted to get it banned from the schools. It was the Republican candidate who declared himself a pacifist and was seen as a progressive. Taft was a Unitarian and told a reporter, “I do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and there are many other of the postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe to.” No one could accuse President Taft of trying to appease to the Religious Right!
Taft never really wanted to be President and was talked into it by his wife and by Theodore Roosevelt, his close friend who would become his bitter enemy by 1912 (ah, politics!). Taft’s wife Helen was pretty evolved for her day. She had strong opinions about many important matters and was the first wife of a President to ride with her husband down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day. Helen Taft was responsible for planting Washington’s famous cherry trees and personally planted the first two saplings in 1912. She was the only First Lady to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery until Jackie Kennedy was buried there in 1994.
After leaving office, Taft achieved his lifelong dream in 1921 when President Wilson named him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position Taft held until 1930, the year he died. Taft had not been a very popular President, lacking the charisma of his predecessor. Among his many decisions, he had opposed the admission of Arizona into the United States (hello, John McCain!) but that still occurred during his time in office. After his presidency, he fought against the U.S. entering into World War I, even urging men to resist the draft, and he founded the League to Enforce Peace (can you imagine a Republican getting away with that today?). He was most proud of his service on the Supreme Court and remarked toward the end of his life, “I don’t remember that I ever was President.”
William Jennings Bryan post-1908 career included lots of stumping for Prohibition and other causes one would today associate more with conservative Republicans. He stayed involved in politics and became Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State between 1913 and 1915. But he remained a controversial figure. In 1924, Bryan opposed a resolution at the Democratic Convention that condemned the Ku Klux Klan. Ever the pragmatist, he felt that the Democrats could not afford to alienate white racists in the South. Of course Bryan is most famous for his important role in the 1925 Scopes Trial when he promoted his anti-evolution views and suffered under the cross-examination of Clarence Darrow. He died five days after the trial ended.
The Republicans didn’t have to resort to calling Bryan a socialist during the 1908 campaign because there was a third candidate that year: the charismatic Eugene V. Debs who was the official candidate of the Socialist Party of America and received half a million votes. Debs ran for President a total of four times, more than doubling his votes in every election. He was a great speaker but I don’t think Barack Obama will be invoking his words any time soon.
So there you have it. A hundred years ago tomorrow, on November 3, 1908, the American people were choosing between a progressive Republican who was against war, a deeply religious Democrat who wanted to criminalize booze and ban the teaching of evolution, and a firebrand Socialist who wanted to emancipate the working class. No wonder McCain and Obama haven't been throwing any centennial celebrations for these guys!