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How To Get Elected
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
The fact that “the play’s the thing” becomes even more evident when there is no built-in drama arising out of a genuine contest for the nomination. The conventions in which parties renominate an incumbent President are generally more overt in their “staging”; the Republicans reached a high point in 1956 when they played before the TV cameras the frank soap opera in which housewives, Hollywood stars, and athletes took stage-center, one after another, to croon their love for “Ike.” But fuming Democrats should be reminded that the first Democratic convention, as we have noted, was held for the similar purpose of demonstrating the nation’s passion for Old Hickory, whose renomination was in no possible shadow of doubt.
After the conventions, the campaign gets under way. The stakes are higher now, and the problems of organization more complex; in each party, fifty state and hundreds of local organizations must mesh their efforts, and the nets must be cast not for ten or fifteen delegates at a time, but for whole districts, containing thousands of votes. Yet the campaign is made clearer if one remembers that historically it has served some of the same functions as the convention. It is not so much a period of deliberation on men and issues, since only rarely—at least in modern times—are there genuine issues to fight over, or sharp distinctions between the men who are pursuing the prize. The parties themselves have been busily soaking up and neutralizing issues, for if they find themselves tied too tightly to one class, one section, one program, they are doomed. What does take place in an election is a symbolic bestowal by the people of the power to speak in their name. The President will not only be a constitutional ruler, a chief executive, a party boss, and a ceremonial head of state. He is in his own person the representative of the American people. Thus much of the campaign managers’ time is spent in trying to demonstrate to the voters that their candidate is the American who both embodies all the best national characteristics and, as a leader, actually projects them in larger-than-life size. The pure of heart, viewing American campaigns and their pretensions, may deplore the scarcity of real debate and the prevalence of images and symbols. But images and symbols are the very stuff of the election itself. The first President, after all, was the Father of His Country.
Thus the campaign biography, the poster, the badge, the button, the press release, and the whole apparatus of publicity are all aimed at a magical transformation. The candidate is as often as not a professional politician of middle years, not spectacularly different from his opponent in basic social and economic beliefs. Yet he must be shown as an archetype of what the nation thinks itself to be, and styles in campaign imagery have changed as the national self-portrait has changed. The typical nineteenth-century American hero was supposedly a boy born in modest circumstances—rural circumstances, be it understood—who had risen to fame by integrity of character and plenty of hard work. The log cabin mystique that was fashioned for Harrison set a tone enthusiastically embraced by Lincoln’s campaign managers when they created Old Abe, the Rail Splitter. Lincoln’s credentials as a self-made man were genuine enough, but the point is that in 1860 he was a successful lawyer living in comfortable circumstances in the capital of a fast-growing state, it was the fifty-one-year-old attorney, ex-legislator, and ex-candidate for Senator who was up for election, not the teen-age frontier youth who had been so handy with an axe. Yet the propagandists knew what they were doing. The Republicans were arguing that their platform of barring the further spread of slavery was designed to honor and protect free labor and self-improvement. They could scarcely have offered a better argument than a candidate who knew what it was to have calluses on his hands.
So potent was the power of the “farmhouse to White House” myth that it persisted long after the country had become largely urbanized. Though Herbert Hoover was, in 1928, a rich and respected mining engineer, campaign biographers dwelt lyrically on his early years in West Branch, Iowa, and seemed to suggest that the birthplace of his administrative talents was some boyhood fishing hideaway, rather than international business and the cabinets of two Presidents. Against this image, poor Al Smith could bring only his youthful service in New York’s Fulton Fish Market, and it was well known to all Americans that to be shabby and barefoot in a city is degrading, while amid the corn rows poverty equals virtue. A classic photograph used in the campaign of 1024 showed Calvin Coolidge in overalls, perched on a hay wagon—wearing shiny black patent leather shoes. Those shoes were quite the proper wear for a Northampton lawyer and graduate of Amtierst College who sometimes read Italian for recreation—but not for a candidate.