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The Front Porch Campaign
While Bryan stumped up and down the land, McKinley let the voters come to his lawn in Canton—and they came
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
The best times of all for Hanna were the hours late at night in the den at his house in Cleveland, when the other members of the house party had gone to bed, and just the two of them had their heart-to-heart talks, puffing their cigars and looking into each other’s faces. Years later, he could still see the kindly, quizzical look in McKinley’s eyes when he said, “Mark, this seems to be right and fair and just. I think so, don’t you?” Hanna remembered too how McKinley’s eyes would sparkle at the suggestion that the tariff bill which he had sponsored as a congressman had brought Republican defeat in the presidential election of 1892, and how he would admit it might be so, “but wait and see, Mark—wait and see.” Hanna remembered that McKinley said, “A good soldier must always be ready for duty,” and another time, “There are some things, Mark, I would not do and cannot do, even to become President of the United States.”
Together these two made one perfect politician. In the foreground was the zealous protagonist of his party’s causes, the speaker who could inspire faith in well-worn platitudes, the moralist who spurned commitments, the diplomat who avoided unpleasantness. Behind him moved the practical businessman, whose brain was unclouded by muzzy ideals; the clever organizer, who could push and publicize, make deals and raise money; the blunt and bad-tempered fighter. McKinley’s indirection of mind and method combined with his cautiousness and diffidence to unfit him for openly promoting his own advancement. His reticence was always his great flaw as a leader. With the growth of his importance, he had become increasingly formal and guarded, wary of committing himself on all points except the tariff. McKinley’s political skills were instinctive. He did not comprehend or cultivate the art of public relations. His excessive modesty was a curious defect in a man of such resolute ambition. McKinley could freely ask favors for others; he could work boldly for the party; but he shrank from seeming to put his own interests forward, and preferred neglect even to favorable personal notice in the newspapers.
On the candidate’s behalf, Mark Hanna pulled the powerful strings of money and organization and publicity. “He has advertised McKinley,” Theodore Roosevelt would exclaim, “as if he were a patent medicine!” McKinley was like a talented artist who needed an impresario, a press agent, and an angel. In Mark Hanna, he found all three.
McKinley, in retirement at his home town, Canton, Ohio, had not passed the spring of 1896 in untroubled contemplation of the progress of his preconvention canvass. His emergence as a formidable contender for the Republican nomination had started the yellow press snapping at his heels, with the New York Journal leading the pack. McKinley’s record was bare of hidden scandals. He had worked hard. He had not accumulated money. His public career had been as honest as his private life was upright. He had few enemies, and his Canton neighbors had nothing but good to tell of him. His bankruptcy while he was governor of Ohio was the only incident on which the Journal could fasten scurrilous assertion and innuendo. The Hearst correspondent, Alfred Henry Lewis, raked over the story, and produced tales of McKinley’s reckless extravagance and his bondage to the men who had aided him. Some of the mud splashed. McKinley’s financial failure became a favorite sneer, vigorously exploited for a time by the respectable Nation . Lewis caught public attention when he wrote, “Hanna and the others will shuffle him and deal him like a pack of cards,” but he went beyond the bounds of partisan credulity in his aspersions on McKinley’s backers as a syndicate “gambling for a White House.” The Journal did far better when it concentrated its venom on the alleged chief of the syndicate, the wicked millionaire, Mark Hanna. To strike at McKinley through his manager became the established policy of the Democratic opposition. Before the campaign ended, Hanna had been made the scapegoat for all the sins of money and corruption. The Journal did not scruple to brand him as a union-smasher, the warmest enemy of the workingman, who for thirty years had “torn at the flanks of labor like a wolf.”
Still more effective in influence than Lewis was the Journal ’s talented cartoonist, Homer Davenport. In the spring of 1896, he made an unknown Ohio businessman the most infamously caricatured figure in America. Hanna was depicted as a brutal, obese plutocrat, the symbol of sly malice and bloated greed, covered with moneybags and dollar signs. Behind this monster the little candidate cowered in his big Napoleonic hat. Hanna was the puppet-master who pulled McKinley’s strings; the ventriloquist who spoke through the dummy, McKinley; the organ-grinder for whom the monkey, McKinley, danced. Davenport, at this time, had never seen Hanna. It was considered a clever political stroke that the cartoonist had been taken to call on McKinley; he was unable to repeat the savage drawings after he met their original. Nevertheless, the representation of McKinley as pitiable and victimized was a poor service to his reputation. The graphic impression of his spineless subservience to Hanna would long outlast the lies of Alfred Henry Lewis.