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How To Get Elected
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
So indispensable has been this homey touch that candidates who enter the game with a family background that includes obvious wealth, social position, or intellectual achievement are somewhat handicapped. They have met the challenge in various ways. Theodore Roosevelt overcame the double handicap of patrician origins and literary avocations by furious devotion to the manly arts. He boxed, rode, hiked, hunted, punched cattle, explored jungles, and in countless other ways exhausted associates who tried to keep up with him. Franklin Roosevelt, though a Dutchess County squire, affected a folksy air and warmed the hearts of a generation of voters with his inevitable salutation, “My friends—.” John F. Kennedy discounted his wealth by joking about it. “ I announced earlier this year that I would not consider campaign contributions as a substitute for experience in appointing ambassadors,” he told a New York audience in 1960, “and ever since, I haven’t received a cent from my father.” Woodrow Wilson did not have to worry about being numbered among the idle rich, but he bore the burden of having been a professor and university president. He offset this stigma as much as possible with humor, and with public attendance at such low-brow recreations as ball games and minstrel shows. (He also composed self-deprecating limericks: “For beauty I am not a star/ There are others handsomer far./ But my face I don’t mind it/ For I am behind it,/ It’s the people out front that I jar.”) It is in pursuit of identification with the mythical “everyday, common American” that candidates submit to such public rituals as donning Boy Scout hats, pitching horseshoes, and eating hot dogs at county fairs. In 1948 Thomas E. Dewey was photographed, with a not very convincing smile, standing between two men clad in bearskins and carrying clubs—members of an Oregon organization called the Cave Men.
The image preponderates over the issue. In general, campaigns are not fought on issues, for serious ideological division in the nation is rare, dangerous, and not often encouraged. Violence of language rises sharply if there is anything approaching a real clash of social philosophies in the campaign. When William Jennings Bryan ran on the free-silver issue in 1896, badly frightening the business community, he was described as a “blood-imbued puppet in the hands of the anarchist Altgeld [the German-born governor of Illinois] and the desperado Debs [prominent labor-union leader].” When Franklin D. Roosevelt asked for a popular endorsement of the New Deal in 1936, a well-known Chicago newspaper solemnly counted down the time before Election Day, warning each morning that only ten, nine, eight, seven days (and so on) were left to save the republic. Generally, however, passions do not run so high. On the other hand, an election involving no major issues is not necessarily conducted on highminded lines. In 1884, when Blaine, with his tainted record, was running against the obviously incorruptible Grover Cleveland, the Republicans unearthed the probability that Cleveland in his salad days had sired a bastard. “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” they chanted at rallies; “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!” Cleveland won anyway, thus proving the exception to the rule that the candidate must embody what the average man considers absolute moral rectitude in his private life.
The actual mechanics of the campaign have changed somewhat over the years. It was originally considered good form for the candidate to stay at home quietly during the pre-election season, maintaining the fiction that he was a Cincinnatus whom the office was seeking out—a good citizen unwilling to leave home and hearth except to answer the nation’s call. Though a few exceptions occurred in the nineteenth century, the pattern was most dramatically broken by Bryan in 1896. The “Boy Orator of the Platte” travelled some 18,000 miles by rail, lifting his voice five and six times a day against the Republican worshippers of Mammon. Republican manager Mark Hanna, by contrast, kept his man, William McKinley, at home in Canton, Ohio, while delegations representing labor, industry, agriculture, the churches, immigrants, and every variety of political animal, journeyed to the McKinley residence. There, in carefully prepared extempore speeches, “the Major” (a title earned in the Civil War) would assure everyone that he was with them then and forever, world without end. This “front porch campaign” got McKinley elected, vindicating Hanna’s judgment.