August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
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
“Elections, my dear Sir,” wrote John Adams to Thomas Jefferson after perusing a copy of the new Constitution, “Elections to offices which are great objects of Ambition, I look at with terror.” One can imagine the shudder with which both men, could they stand amid the bustle of a modern presidential campaign, would regard that quadrennial “carnival of buncombe.”
For the Framers of the Constitution saw the selective process as a dignified affair—a few respected electors, state by state, sifting the merits of the worthiest eligibles. Something like a church council naming a new pastor, or a faculty bestowing a professorship. But the march of democracy changed this planned, orderly process into an unbelievable national jamboree, reflecting the best and the worst in our kind of self-government.
The first President was indeed chosen in the judicious manner planned, mainly because of unanimous consent as to the virtues of George Washington. But by the time of Jefferson’s election in 1800, political debate was already red-hot, from Vermont to Georgia. Forty years thereafter, in Van Buren’s day, the council or faculty theory was dead, for it was clear that the Electoral College merely ratified the will of the sovereign—and partisan—voters. The dignified scheme survived only as a shadow.
From then on, presidential candidates and their managers have had to woo the voters regularly and unabashedly with every trick they know. This purposeful pursuit blossomed into a unique institution, the American presidential campaign. Time and technology have inflated it into fantastic shapes. Yet the oddest thing about the quadrennial Mardi gras is how often it has produced genuine leaders.
Nonpartisanship as an ideal in the selection process lasted no longer than Washington. Even as the Father of His Country stepped down in 1797, an opposition newspaper was rejoicing that “the man who is the source of all the misfortunes of our country, is this day reduced to a level with his fellow-citizens.” By 1800, the country’s leadership was already dividing into two parties, a development not provided for by the Constitution. On one hand stood the Federalists, generally favoring nationalism, commerce, and the rule of the rich, the wise, and the well-born; on the other were the Democratic Republicans of Thomas Jefferson, generally dedicated to agrarian virtues and the rights of the sovereign states, and inclined to a flirtatious fondness for the “radical” doctrines of the French Revolution. There was enough violence in the wordy warfare of these contenders to make it appear unlikely that the youthful government would long endure. The Federalists were accused of preparing to establish an Anglophile monarchy on American soil, and Federalist clergymen in turn warned darkly that a DemocraticRepublican triumph would, among other things, “change our holy worship into a dance of Jacobin phrenzy” and turn Yankee boys and girls into “disciples of Voltaire” and “concubines of the Illuminati.”
Yet when Thomas Jefferson was elected, he promptly issued a call for peace, declaring in his inaugural address that Americans were “all Republicans … all Federalists.” His meaning was that the defeated party would suffer no worse punishment than the loss of office, and that it would have a fair chance to reverse the verdict peacefully at the next general election. Power could be transferred bloodlessly no matter how hot the fires of partisanship blazed. The country could survive the passions of the elective process, as it has done in fact, with the one sad exception of 1860. For these reasons orators have felt pretty free to give full rein to their imagination in predicting the calamities that would befall the country should the voters unwisely choose the “enemy” candidate. The campaign became a safety valve for the emotions of a headstrong people who took self-government seriously. The game of politics might be a rough one, and the stakes high, but everyone knew that play would resume, with a clean scoreboard, on the next scheduled date. Precisely because life, fortune, and honor did not hinge forever on the outcome, tempers could be let out of control for a time. The American presidential election contest was—and is—an astounding political and psychological device for utilizing controlled tensions in order to get a national decision made.
Yet even further changes were in store for the constitutional plan of President-making. The earliest political parties were essentially associations of likeminded landholders and business and professional men. These were the economic and social groups to whom the franchise was mainly restricted, and when they sent men of their own kind to the state legislatures or to the federal capital, it was assumed that they embodied the only points of view in the country worth any serious consideration. Hence, when the Federalist or Democratic-Republican members of Congress met in caucus to decide whom the “party” should support for President, it seemed to the voters of the period from 1800 to 1820 a wholly reasonable proceeding.
Bit by bit, however, time was sweeping away the notion that the American republic should be governed by an aristocracy of presumed merit, chosen from those already endowed with property and position. The wild expansion of the nation after 1815—the rush to the West, the coming of factories, the rise of towns and cities, the boom in cotton, wheat, and other crops, the pulsing growth of both internal and foreign trade —all these activities opened new doors and sharpened new hungers. Opportunity beckoned to countless new thousands who had now joined in “the pursuit of happiness.” They demanded land, credit, protection, a way to the market, and above all the abolition of any privileges, real or imagined, that gave the gentry an unfair head start in the race. Jn political terms, the war on “privilege” took the form of a demand for universal manhood suffrage, and by the iSao’s, at least in the northern states, that battle was largely won.
Once the electorate was broadened, common men demanded a change in the Presidency. Of the five chief magistrates who followed Washington, three (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) were Virginia landholders, and the other two (John Adams and his son, John Quincy) originated in the Massachusetts “establishment” of law and trade. All five were learned men, with diplomatic experience. By the iSao’s, various “out” groups, representing other classes and other sections, were insisting that the patrician pattern in the Chief Executive’s office be broken. Their candidate for the job was the war hero of 1815, Andrew Jackson. The victor of New Orleans was placed before the nation, first unsuccessfully in 1824 and with better luck four years later, as the man who embodied the will of a new and mysterious entity, “the people.”
There was some irony in this. Though Jackson had indeed been born of humble parents in the Carolina backwoods, he had become by 1820 a success in every way. He was owner of goodly lands and held many slaves on his Tennessee estate; he had also been a judge and a senator; and he had invested in various capitalistic enterprises around Nashville. He was selfmade, to be sure, but not noticeably more so than such rivals as Henry Clay or John C. Calhoun. Nor were his political backers the first to challenge the congressional caucus system of nomination by getting state legislatures to place the names of favorite sons before the voters. But somehow Jackson seemed more homespun than the rest. He spelled and pronounced Webster’s English like an unlettered squatter. Though endowed with natural courtesy, he was contemptuous of formal niceties. His solution to a diplomatic problem involving British traders in Florida in 1818 had been to execute two of them. He had “licked” both the redcoats and the redskins in 1814 and 1815. In his impetuosity, his resentment of any restraints on his urge to “get ahead,” his tactlessness and his courage- in all these he symbolized the American spirit for hundreds of thousands. He had what would today be called the right “image,” and his triumphant election in 1828 was in fact a democratic revolution, whatever reservations historians may later have had about so describing it.
It was a revolution whose full impact, however, was not felt for a dozen years. The old Federalist and feffersonian parties had practically disappeared in the twenties as the issues that created them gave way to new ones. In lhe thirties, new parties emerged—this time with deeper grass roots. The various aggregations of pro-Jackson men unabashedly took the name of “Democrats,” and the foes of “King Andrew” rallied under a banner labelled “Whig”—a term taken from eighteenth-century British and colonial politics and signifying opposition to royal pretensions. Neither name was precisely logical, but logic was rapidly deserting the electoral procedure. The Whigs had begun by calling themselves “National Republicans,” which made more sense, but as “National” alienated some states’ rights men, and “Republican” offended ex-Federalists, the coalition formally adopted the more dramatic and nebulous name in 1834.
In 1831 and 1832 the Democrats, the National Republicans, and a short-lived new party, the AntiMasons, had come up with another novelty. This was a national convention of delegates to nominate candidates for the Presidency and Vice Presidency. The caucus system was already giving way to nominations by state legislatures, or by mass meetings called specifically for President-making purposes in the several states. A national gathering was clearly an even more impressive testimonial to the breadth of a politician’s support. For the 1832 campaign the Anti-Masons chose a little-known Virginian, William Wirt; the National Republicans, Henry Clay; and the Democrats—predictably—Andrew Jackson. In 1836 the National Republicans-turned-Whigs chose to skip a convention, while the Democrats passed the mantle to Vice President Martin Van Buren. He was elected. In 1840 the Democrats renominated Van Buren, but the Whigs set the stage for spectacular developments in President-making when they chose William Henry Harrison as their standard-bearer.
Harrison was a plantation-born Virginian, then a semi-professional soldier who had won acclaim by repulsing an Indian attack in 1811 at the Battle of Tippecanoe. In the War of 1812 he was one of the few successful American generals. He had settled in the West and become identified with it. Generally speaking, the Whigs had tended to attract the more prosperous merchants, manufacturers, and planters in the nation; but in a flash of political insight their 1840 managers realized that they could present Harrison as a plain, western old soldier. They would out-Jackson the Jacksonians. Capitalizing quickly on the sneer of a Democratic spokesman that the colorless Harrison would be content to spend the rest of his life in a cabin equipped with a barrel of hard cider, the Whigs went to work. Van Buren, struggling with a serious depression that had begun in 1837, was depicted as an effete easterner who dined lavishly off gold plate in the White House (see page 108) while unemployed workmen starved and virtuous yeomen were driven to the wall by toppling farm prices. Harrison, on the other hand, became the people’s man. Monster processions were organized to extol the virtues of “Old Tippecanoe.” Perspiring Whig committee workers dragged floats bearing miniature log cabins, decked themselves in coonskin caps, and ladled out free cider to roaring crowds. Campaign newspapers blossomed with such doggerel as, “Farewell, dear Van,/ You’re not our man;/ To guide the ship,/ We’ll try old Tip.” It was sheer demagoguery, but with the help of hard times it worked beautifully. When the votes were in, Harrison had 234 electoral tallies to 60 for Van Buren. The total popular vote of nearly two and a half million represented a turnout of something like eighty per cent of the potential electorate, a record possibly unmatched since then.
Thereafter, no party ever faced the country without hymning the virtues of popular democracy. The pattern was finally set. From now on the political life of the nation would be carried on predominantly through two major parties, organized from the precinct level upward. Every four years these parties meet in convention to nominate “the people’s choice” for the highest office in the land. The voters set their seal on one or the other in November, and the Electoral College almost invariably rubber-stamps their decision. The process is obviously some distance from what the Constitution intended. But there is more to it than that. The full picture must distinguish clearly between ritual and reality—between the formal process of nomination and election, and the more interesting things that go on behind the façade of prepared speeches and official returns.
Ritual begins with the conventions. In the first place, they partake of the character of another American institution, the revival meeting, which was born about a generation earlier. Men went to revivals knowing what they could expect. They would hear eternal verities noisily affirmed, sinners and Satan scourged without mercy. They would be bound together in a common surge of emotion as they sang, prayed, wept, and finally rejoiced in the Lord’s salvation. On a more mundane level, the revival meeting (and later the political rally) filled social needs in a rural world short on formal entertainment, one in which families lived most of the year in isolation. It was a time for shared experiences; for reunion; for eating and drinking; and now and then, on the dark fringes of a torchlit gathering, for impromptu love-making.
The vestiges of this pattern show in the modern convention like fossil bones. There is the keynote oration, an opening sermon that warms and fuses the crowd. Later comes the statement of creed—the reading of the platform, rarely designed to convince anyone not already convinced of the party’s absolute purity and the opposition’s total depravity. The nominating speeches arouse local loyalties, and move the delegates up a steadily mounting slope of tension to the climax of the balloting. (If, as sometimes happens, the presidential nomination is a cut-and-dried one, some excitement is generated by the choice of the vice-presidential standard-bearer.) When the smoke has cleared, the ceremonial love feast follows, as the faithful devotees of the several candidates who have been at each other’s throats for months close ranks behind the nominee in a final spasm of oratory and cheering. The whole performance follows traditional ritual, like the successive stages of a bullfight.
Actually, of course, the thousand or so delegates are not freely choosing their man from a wide-open list. Four or five—and often just two or three—leading contenders are the only real possibilities, and they have spent months campaigning vigorously for support from the state organizations that have picked the delegates. These “genuine” potential nominees are almost always preselected by a system of restrictions as inexorable in their sieving-out as any examination system for the higher bureaucracy ever devised in ancient China.
For one thing, there is the sectional test—more important before the Civil War than since, but still not entirely without significance. A candidate must have at least minimum acceptability in both the North and the South. From 1832 to 1936, a Democratic candidate had to have more than the minimum, since the Democrats operated under a rule that denied the nomination to anyone failing to muster two-thirds of the delegate vote. This gave southerners a veto at the very least, and they used it in 1844 to block the renomination of Martin Van Buren, who had offended them in a number of ways. The ensuing deadlock resulted in the choice of the first “dark horse,” or relatively unknown compromise candidate. He was James K. Polk, a Tennessee slaveholder but a loyal congressional follower of Jacksonian policies, and as Speaker of the House during part of Van Buren’s administration, a most important Democrat. During the campaign, which the Democrats won, the Whigs sneeringly asked, “Who is James K. Polk?” thus fostering the common impression that a dark-horse candidate is inevitably a nonentity.
In point of fact, though Polk was not much of a public personality, his performance was amazing. He went into office intending to acquire California and New Mexico, settle the Oregon boundary dispute, reduce the tariff, and set up an independent Treasury. He achieved every one of these objectives, while conducting the Mexican War—a record that ranks him among the most effective of the Presidents, and indicates how curiously successful the convention mechanism can be. On the other hand, a deadlocked convention does not invariably produce great leaders. In 1924 the Democrats perspired through an appalling 103 ballots while southerners and westerners fought off the challenge of the urban supporters of Alfred E. Smith. The compromise choice was West Virginia’s John W. Davis, who, arrayed against Calvin Coolidge, helped to make that year’s campaign one of the most forgettable in our history.
Sectionalism has been less potent in national lue of late than it used to be, but our furious rate of urbanization has increased the irresistible force of another geographical factor. The would-be candidate had better come from, or be tightly associated with, one of the populous states with a big electoral vote, which automatically means one of the states with major cities.
The rule is not inflexible. It can be broken by a man who, like Herbert Hoover or Wendell Willkie, has achieved a national reputation without going through the mill of a state election; but this feat has usually been reserved for successful generals, who rarely live long in one place. As one orator, putting the name of Ulysses S. Grant in nomination, rhythmically announced:
The poetry was bad but the political insight was shrewd (see “The Man on Horseback,” page 10). If a boy aspires to the highest office in the land, and does not care to be a professional soldier, his prospects will be improved if he does not serve his political apprenticeship in some state like Nevada or North Dakota.
Other considerations of “availability” further narrow the range of choices. In general, it is best for a would-be candidate not to have played too active a role on the national scene, for his very success in the leadership of his party may have made him enemies. Stephen A. Douglas was clearly the outstanding figure in the Democratic party from 1850 to 1860, but the conventions of 1852 and 1856 passed him by in favor of much less famous—and less controversial—men: Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. (Douglas won nomination in 1860 only after southern Democrats had walked out of the convention at Charleston, in a grim prelude to secession.) James G. Blaine was the outstanding national political figure for the post-Civil War Republican generation, in an admittedly lackluster field. Yet he was skipped in 1876 and 1880 for the Ohio war veterans Hayes and Garfield, though he finally got his chance to run in 1884. (Part of Blaine’s difficulty lay, however, in the fact that he had a reputation for what we would currently call “influence-peddling” on behalf of large corporations, especially railroads.) Closer to our own time, while Robert A. Taft was “Mr. Republican” to the press and the public, the conventions turned from him to political outsiders like Willkie and Eisenhower, or to Thomas E. Dewey, who had been less outspoken. Party loyalty is all very well, but conventions meet to pick a winner, and a long list of ritual taboos eliminates those might-be nominees who are thought to lack the right magic, or to have offended the tribal gods in some way.
A determined campaign can break such taboos, to be sure. After the great General Grant himself failed to secure a third-term nomination in 1880, it was assumed that the no-third-term “tradition” had the force of law—until Franklin D. Roosevelt successfully defied it in 1940, and added a flourish by winning a fourth time in 1944. John F. Kennedy was determined to erase the impression, deepened by Al Smith’s failure at the polls in 1928, that it was fatal to nominate a Catholic, and he succeeded in 1960.
Everything considered, as the delegates stream into the hall for the opening ceremonies, they generally are aware that their choice lies among fewer than five men who have been working hard and expensively for a long time to convince them that they can win a majority of the votes in a nationwide test. The members of this select handful are very likely to be white Protestant males in their fifties who have been governors or members of Congress from one of the heavily populated states—and nowadays they are also likely to be well-to-do, if not rich. The “people’s choice” is already rather circumscribed.
Nor will the convention make an entirely uninfluenced selection. The state organization leaders who command the delegations usually can get them to vote as directed. Most delegates are local politicians, beholden to the state boss in one way or another. If the choice is not actually made in the famous “smokefilled room” described by Warren G. Harding’s promoter in 1920, it is nevertheless generally the result of furious negotiation and calculation by a fairly limited number of state machine leaders (sometimes identical with the captains of the biggest big-city machine in the state). They are the men whom the candidates’ managers must see, and they can almost always “deliver” the great majority of their delegates. Now and then a convention may appear to be stampeded. In 1896 William Jennings Bryan took the speaker’s rostrum at the Democratic convention to defend a proposed platform plank in favor of the free coinage of silver at a ratio of 16 to i with gold. His sonorous oration, ending with the cry: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” was followed by a bedlam of applause and cheers, and was popularly supposed to have brought him the nomination two days later. In point of fact, the pro-silver men who dominated the proceedings had few other choices. In 1940, the roars of “We Want Willkie!” from the galleries of the Republican convention in Philadelphia may have confounded the professionals and put the Indiana-born lawyer, businessman, and ex-Democrat over the top, after a relatively brief publicity build-up. But in general, when the chairman of a delegation seizes the microphone and booms to the world the fact that the glo-o-orious state of Such-andSuch is switching its X number of votes from Statesman A to Leader B, he can count on his delegates following along without much argument if they know what is good for them.
Such being the case, then—that in fact the nominees are usually chosen from a limited list by hard bargaining among their spokesmen and state organization leaders—is there any meaning to the oratorical and musical orgies of the convention—the parades, bands, balloons, demonstrations, badges, pins, banners, handouts, and hoopla? Actually, there is a good deal. The nomination could hardly be achieved if it were necessary to get a majority of a thousand delegates drawn from fifty states to agree on one likely vote-getter from an unlimited list. Chaos would ensue. And the mummery does allow battles within the party to take place publicly, but inside a stylized framework of unity that allows for the reconciliation after’ it is all over. Only rarely have conventions really broken apart from internal dissension, as did the Democrats in 1860, or the Republicans in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt’s followers, balked in efforts to nominate “Teddy,” fled into the short-lived Bull Moose party and delivered the election to the Democrats. The normal thing is for the urban liberal and the rural fundamentalist, the tariff advocate and the labor leader, the Catholic and the Protestant, the Negro spokesman and the white supremacist, to strike their attitudes and leave the managers to work out the necessary compromises in private meeting. After antagonisms have been formally recognized, vented, and exorcised, the party will actually go before the country with a candidate and a platform representing many classes, sections, and interests. Thus the convention is an enactment, in a theatrical setting, of the constant process of adjustment and conciliation among diverse pressure groups that is at the heart of the American political system.
Likewise, the convention replays the time-honored script of representative government. The chosen candidate ceremoniously thanks the delegates for the honor which they have conferred upon him, and the delegates in turn stream back to their townships and city wards to tell the local faithful how they , through the delegates, have uttered the party’s principles and chosen its leaders. The candidate is thus linked, at least indirectly, with every precinct headquarters in the country, and an emotional current is generated that drives hundreds of thousands of party workers through months of exhausting toil. Though patronage is supposed to be the cement of parties, they do not live by loaves and fishes alone. The supply is too limited. Ritually-invoked tribal loyalty is also necessary, and this the convention furnishes in abundance.
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.
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.
Nevertheless, American life was becoming more and more mobile, and it seemed fitting for the campaigner to get out and show himself to the populace. Even the Socialist candidate of 1908, Eugene V. Debs, mustered enough money to finance a nationwide rail tour. His train was appropriately called The Red Special. Ultimately, almost every candidate embarked on whistle-stop tours. They became a fine art. The train would pull into a depot, and while the locomotive panted up front, the prospective President would step out onto the observation platform and deliver a few remarks on the merits, beauties, and contributions to the national weal of Blankville. Working from a hasty briefing by his staff, he would refer to a few local dignitaries and monuments in a tone of affectionate familiarity. His last few words were sometimes drowned out by the hiss of steam and a hoarse toot as the train started once more. Now and then this was providential, for in the excitement of the moment, candidates have been known to bid a fond good-by to the wrong town. The whistle-stop tour was supposedly rendered obsolete after World War II, as the railroads declined from their former grandeur: but Harry Truman used the device with stunning effect in 1948. The 1960 campaign saw both candidates travel extensively, too, but this time by jet aircraft, leading to such miracles as the following: in the last week before election day, Kennedy spent Monday in Philadelphia; Tuesday in Los Angeles; Wednesday in San Francisco; Thursday in Phoenix, Albuquerque, Amarillo, Wichita Falls, and Oklahoma City; Friday in Virginia, Ohio, and Chicago; and Saturday in New York. Nixon’s itinerary was equally fantastic. Yet neither man could forgo the campaign trail, for it is now part of the mystique that the candidate must appear to be not only everything to everyone, but must manifest himself in the flesh as nearly everywhere as possible. Or at least, everywhere in the states with large electoral votes. (Nixon made a point of showing himself in all fifty; but his repeat performances took place where the voters were thickest.)
Presumably the coming of television may work new changes in the pattern of the campaign, but it is too early to tell. The Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 are generally assumed to have had considerable impact in publicizing Kennedy nationally. It is also possible that Nixon suffered a psychological setback by appearing haggard and defensive in the first encounter. (He had recently been ill, and was badly made up.) But until such debates are repeated it will be difficult to know whether the picture tube is going to have an effect on campaigning comparable to that of the locomotive when it reached its peak use in the whistle-stop tours.
In the end, what does it all amount to? When the tumult and the shouting die, and both candidates have identified themselves with every ethnic group and every occupation, every private virtue and every public aspiration, and half the nation’s public men have denounced the other half as deluded visionaries or corrupt tools of privilege—when all is over, the vote is divided almost evenly between the two parties. The Electoral College system masks the fact that few winning candidates get much more than fifty per cent of the ballots—or a little less, if third-party candidates take a portion of the total. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, in winning the landslide election of 1936, got only something like fifty-eight per cent of the popular vote. The pattern of most elections reveals surprisingly close divisions. In 1880, fewer than 8,000 popular votes out of some 9 million cast separated Garfield, the winner, from Hancock, the loser. Eighty years later, Kennedy had 112,881 votes more than Nixon, out of a total of nearly 69 million. The difference was approximately one tenth of one per cent. These two are the narrowest gaps, but rarely are they very much wider. The winnertake-all system of the electoral vote by states distorts the reality of a near-perfect balance between major parties. But once that balance is understood, it is much easier to explain why political life settles back so quickly to normal, or why even the greatest “mandate” for an incoming President ordinarily permits him to undertake only gradual changes, and those circumspectly. There are no truly crushing victories or unbearable defeats, and consequently, no unchecked arrogance among the winners or hopeless bitterness among the losers. The nation remains in equilibrium.
The campaign ritual, therefore, becomes an affirmation of unity. A good deal may be said against it. Its increasing costliness raises a serious problem of controlling the post-election influence of “fat cat” contributors, and is sheer destruction to minority parties. Its extravagancies of language are sometimes dangerously misunderstood by foreigners. While few issues are really and truly debated in a campaign, a good many sensitive issues are mauled and misshapen, and candidates are committed to positions—promises to “roll back” the Iron Curtain; to “keep us out of war”; or to perform other undertakings which cannot be achieved unilaterally—that may return to haunt them.
Yet overenthusiasm is a less deadly enemy than apathy, and the campaign performance, rousing the voters from their unconcern, guarantees that the victor will be more than a straw man. He may be a political professional who might as well have been chosen by a conference of pollsters, but the election constitutes a laying on of hands to signify that he will represent, when he speaks, something resembling the power of the people. When all is said and done, 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 calmly choosing leaders from its own ranks. Only one American election has actually been tragic. In 1860, the South refused to accept the result of the canvass, and the nation turned from ballot to bullet in a struggle that cost the lives of over half a million young men.
A system which, for all its hoopla, has produced in a century and a third vigorous leaders like Jackson, Polk, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Wilson, and Kennedy, cannot be regarded as anything but successful. Our democratic elective process is not quite blueprinted in the Constitution, but it does well enough in hard going. As Robert Bendiner, speaking of the quest for the White House, recently observed, “the United States could do worse than to be linked in history with that combination of sport, drama, crusade, carnival, and New England town meeting that we know as a presidential election.”