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How to Get Elected
The American system of choosing a President has not worked out badly, far as it may be from the Founding Fathers’ vision of a natural aristocracy
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
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.
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.