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The First Hurrah
Presidential candidates stayed above the battle until William Jennings Bryan stumped the nation in 1896; they’ve been in the thick of it ever since
April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
Bryan’s recipe for direct energetic campaigning was not immediately taken up by subsequent candidates. Even the normally frenetic Theodore Roosevelt abstained in 1904, abiding by the older tradition that a sitting President would besmirch the dignity of his office if he took to the stump.
Oddly enough, it was sedate Woodrow Wilson who first affirmed Bryan’s approach. In his three-cornered race with Taft and Roosevelt in 1912, Wilson saw the latter, now freed of the Presidency and conducting a vigorous on-the-road tour, as his most formidable opponent, a “real, vivid person” to the public, “whom they have seen and shouted themselves hoarse over and voted for.” In contrast, Wilson found himself “a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles.” Still, Wilson announced in early August that he would not engage in undignified “swings around the circle.” Rather, he would stay at home and discuss principles.
But Wilson’s managers protested that 1912 was no time for a front-porch campaign and so, reluctantly, Wilson took to the hustings. It quickly became clear that popular campaigning was not his forte. He was too restrained, too scholarly, his speeches too crammed with facts about the tariff and the trusts, to make sturdy contact with his audiences.
Nevertheless, campaigning had somehow become part of the game, and he had to do it.
The new art flourished throughout the 1920’s, but Franklin Roosevelt brought it to its full maturity. His speeches were carried by radio, enabling the candidate’s mellifluous voice and radiant warmth to reach millions in their homes while he himself faced large big-city audiences. And he had another advantage: “As you know,” he wrote a Montana senator, “I love campaigning.”
Love it or not, his successors have all had to go on the stump.
On-the-road campaigning made a giant leap with the spread of the presidential primary. This year, with primaries scheduled in thirty-five states, popular campaigning will run amok. And, for all the flashy hoopla, it continues to provide important benefits to the political system. It prevents the Presidency from becoming the monopoly of long-established political careerists. It shows the candidate that he must make a broad appeal and that his politics will require accommodation and compromise. And above all, it teaches the candidate—as he follows Bryan’s ghostly footsteps through the tank towns—that the people are his employer.