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Dirty Campaigning in the Roaring Twenties: Hoover vs. Smith

One year ago today, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. If you thought last year's campaign was dirty, Joseph Cummins, author of Anything for a Vote, has a story for you. In an article we first posted last fall, Mr. Cummins explains what passed for mudslinging in the Roaring Twenties.

The Election of 1928

On August 2, 1927, while vacationing in his "Summer White House" in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Calvin Coolidge walked outside to waiting reporters and handed them a slip of paper that read: "I do not choose to run for President in nineteen-twenty-eight." Taking no questions, Silent Cal walked back inside his house—and out of the presidency.

No one could quite figure out why Coolidge had made this decision. The economy was booming, and the president, despite or because of his rock-bottom New England reticence and numerous eccentricities, was quite popular. Perhaps he still harbored grief from the death by blood poisoning of his sixteen-year-old son Calvin Jr. in 1924. Or perhaps it was because, as Mrs. Coolidge allegedly said, "Papa says there's going to be a depression."

Whatever the reason, Coolidge's choice not to run set the scene for an election that was, in the words of one historian, "one of the most revolting spectacles in the nation's history."

The Candidates

hoover-smith.jpg

[Image courtesy of Neatorama]

Republican: Herbert Hoover
Herbert Hoover would later gain a reputation as a man who twiddled his thumbs while America's greatest economic crisis set in—but in 1928, he was a formidable candidate. He was the secretary of commerce and a self-made millionaire who had become known for overseeing humanitarian aid to thousands of starving Europeans during and after World War I. Unfortunately, he was also one of the stiffest, most stilted, most machinelike candidates ever to run for president—so much so that Republicans were forced to plant articles with such headlines as "That Man Hoover—He's Human."

Democratic: Al Smith
Al Smith was the polar opposite of Hoover, a politician born and bred within New York's Tammany Hall system. Smith loved meeting people and pressing the flesh. Going into 1928, he was the four-time governor of New York strengthened by a national following and the support of up-and-coming political stars like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. Al had two problems, however, and they were big ones. He supported the repeal of Prohibition, and he was America's first Catholic presidential candidate.

The Campaign

Neither party was hurting for money in the election of 1928, which may explain why things became so nasty. The Republicans would ultimately spend $9.4 million, the Democrats $7.1 million (the Democrats also ponied up $500,000 on radio time, at the rate of $10,000 an hour for a coast-to-coast hookup).

Republican ads underscored the prosperity Americans were feeling. "Hoover and Happiness or Smith and Soap Houses," or, even more effective, "A Chicken in Every Pot—Vote for Hoover." The message, as one Republican pamphlet put it, was "Your Vote Versus the Spectacle of Idleness and Ruin."

hoover-dog.jpgHoover's handlers often filmed him romping with a large dog to loosen up his image a bit, but he was a man who always wore a full suit and stiff collar, who read his speeches in a perfunctory monotone. ("I can only make so many speeches," he once said. "I only have so much to say.") During interviews he would restrict himself to answering questions without elaborating, and when he was finished, he looked at the questioner blankly, "like a machine that has run down," as one startled reporter put it.

Hoover wisely stayed away from debating the more colorful Smith (he would not even mention his opponent's name) and presented himself as a smart businessman who would run the government like an efficient corporation.

But the election soon took a sickening turn. The Ku Klux Klan continued to be a powerful force in America, with a membership that historians now estimate as high as two to four million. When Smith's campaign train headed West, it was met by burning crosses on the hills and explosions from dynamite charges echoing across the prairies. Klansmen and other religious bigots swayed ignorant voters by telling them that the Catholic Smith, having supposedly sworn fealty to the pope, would turn the United States over to "Romanism and Ruin."

Protestant ministers told their congregations that if Smith became president, all non-Catholic marriages would be annulled and all children of these marriages declared illegitimate.

Preachers even warned their congregations that if they voted for Al Smith, they would go straight to hell.

Hoover officially proclaimed that his opponent's religion had no bearing on his ability to be president, but even Hoover's wife, Lou, whispered that people had a right to vote against Smith because of his faith. She and many other Republicans spread rumors of Smith's alcoholism, which were already rampant because he favored the repeal of Prohibition or, at least, the right of states to choose for themselves. Republicans sneeringly referred to him as "Alcoholic Smith," told of drunken public behavior, and claimed that he had already secretly promised to appoint a bootlegger as secretary of the treasury.

In truth, Smith was a moderate drinker who enjoyed a cocktail in the evening from legal, pre-Prohibition stock. But as we've seen, truth rarely factors into presidential campaigns.

The Winner: Herbert Hoover

hoover-wins.jpgHerbert Hoover won in a landslide that included five states from the usually Democratic South, beating Smith 21,437,227 votes to 15,007,698. A joke went around New York that on the day after the election, Smith wired the pope a one-word telegram: "Unpack!"

How Bad Were The Anti-Catholic Slurs?
Consider the following: At the time of the election, New York's Holland Tunnel was just being completed. Republicans circulated pictures of Al Smith at the mouth of the tunnel, declaring that it really led 3,500 miles under the Atlantic Ocean to Rome—to the basement of the Vatican.

In Daytona Beach, Florida, the school board instructed that a note be placed in every child's lunch pail that read: "We must prevent the election of Alfred E. Smith to the presidency. If he is chosen president, you will not be allowed to read or have a bible."

And this lovely poem spread in leaflets in upstate New York during the summer of 1928:

"When Catholics rule the United States
And the Jew grows a Christian nose on his face
When Pope Pius is head of the Ku Klux Klan
In the land of Uncle Sam
Then Al Smith will be our president
And the country not worth a damn."

babe-ruth-al-smith.jpgThe Babe
Smith was lucky enough to have the endorsement of the country's biggest sports hero, Babe Ruth. After the Yankees' victory in the World Series of 1928, Babe Ruth stumped for Smith from the back of a train carrying the team home from St. Louis. Unfortunately, Ruth wasn't the most dependable spokesman. He would sometimes appear in his undershirt, holding a mug of beer in one hand and a spare rib in the other. Worse, if he met with any dissent while praising Smith, he would snarl, "If that's the way you feel, the hell with you!" and stagger back inside.

Nude Art and Greyhound Racing? The Horror!
When people got tired of attacking Smith for his religion, there were other fruitful areas for invective. One Protestant minister rallied against Smith for dancing and accused him of doing the "bunny hug, turkey trot, hesitation, tango, Texas Tommy, the hug-me-tight, foxtrot, shimmy-dance...and skunk-waltz." Another minister claimed that Smith indulged in "card-playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces, novels, stuffy rooms, evolution...nude art, prize-fighting, actors, greyhound racing, and modernism."

Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Al Smith met his wife, Kate, when they were both growing up in Tammany's impoverished Fourth Ward on New York City's Lower East Side. She and Smith shared a deep love, but Kate was anything but sophisticated. During the 1928 campaign, she was slammed with barely disguised anti-Irish bigotry by prominent Republican women. They claimed that with Kate as first lady, the White House would smell of "corned beef, cabbage, and home brew." Mrs. Florence T. Griswold, Republican national committeewoman, made a speech in which she said, "Can you imagine an aristocratic foreign ambassador saying to her, 'What a charming gown,' and the reply, 'Youse said a mouthful!" Her audience roared with laughter.

Radioheads
hoover-radio.jpgIn 1928, radio networks like the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) extended nationwide—any major political address could expect to reach forty million listeners.

Although Herbert Hoover (pictured) was a far worse stump speaker than Al Smith, he was much better at talking in a studio, where the speaker had to stand very still, exactly ten inches away from the large "pie" microphone, to reduce distortion and extraneous noise. (It was not something Hoover liked, however. When someone asked him if he got a thrill out of speaking over the radio, he snapped: "The same thrill I get when I rehearse an address to a doorknob!")

Smith, far better at campaigning in person, had a much worse time on the radio. No matter how much he tried, he could not refrain from moving around, which caused his voice to fade in and out. And his thick New York accent ("rad-deeo" for radio, "foist" for first) alienated many listeners in rural America. Campaign strategists in both parties would make a note for future elections.

anything-for-a-vote.jpg
This article was excerpted from Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns, written by Joseph Cummins. You can order your copy from Amazon.

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Collection of the New-York Historical Society, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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20 Powerful Quotes From Frederick Douglass
Collection of the New-York Historical Society, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Collection of the New-York Historical Society, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In his 1845 memoir, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the famed abolitionist wrote that, “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.” Later in life, Douglass—who was born into slavery in Maryland—chose February 14 as his official birthdate, with some historians speculating that he was born in 1818.

Douglass would, of course, go on to become one of the most powerful leaders of the anti-slavery movement, working as an advisor to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and later becoming the first African American citizen to hold a government position. In 1872, he was Victoria Woodhull’s running mate in her bid for the presidency (even though he never officially accepted or acknowledged the nomination). He was also a dazzling orator, as these 20 quotes prove.

1. ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PROGRESS AND STRUGGLE

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

2. ON THE UNIVERSALITY OF SORROW

“A smile or a tear has not nationality; joy and sorrow speak alike to all nations, and they, above all the confusion of tongues, proclaim the brotherhood of man.”

3. ON THE VALUE OF EDUCATION

“Some know the value of education by having it. I know its value by not having it."

4. ON THE DENIAL OF JUSTICE

“The American people have this to learn: that where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither person nor property is safe.”

5. ON MEASURING INJUSTICE

“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”

6. ON EMPOWERING YOUTH

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

7. ON MORAL GROWTH

“A battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it.”

8. ON THE SECURITY OF A NATION

“The life of a nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.”

9. ON THE NEED FOR POWER

“It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”

10. ON FREE SPEECH

“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

11. ON REBELLION

“The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.”

12. ON THE CONSEQUENCE OF SLAVERY

“No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

13. ON RIGHT VERSUS WRONG

“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

14. ON WORKING FOR WHAT YOU GET

“People might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get.”

15. ON THE POWER OF KNOWLEDGE

“Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”

16. ON THE NECESSITY OF IRONY

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.”

17. ON REMAINING TRUE TO ONESELF

“I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.”

18. ON THE IMPENETRABILITY OF ONE’S SOUL

“The soul that is within me no man can degrade.”

19. ON THE COLOR OF ONE’S CHARACTER

“A man's character always takes its hue, more or less, from the form and color of things about him.”

20. ON USING THE PAST TO MAKE A BETTER FUTURE

“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.”

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James Dean and 12 Other Celebrity Quakers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though you probably remember learning all about Quakers and their doctrine of the "Inner Light" in middle school, your teacher probably didn't tell you that James Dean was one. To celebrate what would have been the Rebel Without a Cause's 87th birthday, here are 13 famous Quakers.

1. JAMES DEAN

Sent off to be raised by his father's sister in Fairmont, Indiana, James Dean was raised Quaker. And though the faith may not have played the biggest role in his life or career (there are tales that it was through befriending a Methodist reverend that he was encouraged to pursue his loves of bullfighting, car racing, and theater), today he's buried in a Quaker cemetery.

2. RICHARD NIXON

US president Richard Nixon (L) toasts with Chinese Prime Minister, Chou En Lai (R) in February 1972 in Beijing during his official visit in China
AFP/Getty Images

While the nation made a big deal about John F. Kennedy being Catholic, it's interesting to note that old Richard Milhous Nixon was born and raised Quaker. He was raised with strict conservative Quaker values, which included no swearing, no drinking, and no dancing. When he couldn't afford to go to Harvard, despite earning a scholarship, he attended California's Whittier College, a local Quaker college, where he became class president, started a fraternity, practiced with the football team, and even spent his Sundays teaching Sunday school to kids.

3. ANNIE OAKLEY

Annie Oakley—the sharp-shooting female who was rumored to split playing cards edge-wise, then shoot through them a few times before they hit the ground—grew up a dirt-poor Quaker. In fact, her early skill with the gun came from having to hunt food for her impoverished family.

4. DANIEL BOONE

American settler, hunter, and folk hero Daniel Boone was born and raised Quaker. In fact, his family emigrated to the U.S. from England partially for that reason. What's more interesting, however, is why the Boone family didn't stay within the fold. Daniel's sister Sarah made waves in the community when she married a non-Quaker. What's more: she was visibly pregnant at the time she did, which led to her being disowned by the Society. The family publicly apologized for their daughter's behavior, but after their son Israel also married a non-Quaker, the Boones became a famiglia non grata and up and moved to Carolina.

5. EDWARD R. MURROW

Famed news anchor Edward R. Murrow was born on April 25, 1908 in Polecat Creek, North Carolina to Quaker abolitionist parents. For the first six years of his life, he grew up in a log cabin with no plumbing or electricity. His parents, who farmed for a living, made only a few hundred dollars a year—at least until they picked up and moved to Washington state.

6. JOAN BAEZ

Folk singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform during a civil rights rally on August 28, 1963 in Washington D.C
Rowland Scherman, National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images

If you're wondering how folk singer Joan Baez's religion might have played into her development as a political activist, you might want to take a look at her father's life choices. Albert Baez converted to Quakerism when Joan was just a kid, and despite being a co-inventor of the X-ray microscope and a well-known physicist, he refused to work on the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos. He also turned down lucrative job offers from defense contractors during the Cold War.

7. JOHN CADBURY

If you love Cadbury chocolate, you definitely owe a note of thanks to the Society of Friends. As a young man, John Cadbury hoped to pursue a career in medicine or law. But because Quakers were discriminated against by all of the major universities at the time, Cadbury decided to focus on business. Believing that alcohol only exacerbated society's ills, he decided to focus on a happy alternative: chocolate and drinking cocoas. In addition to his views on temperance, Cadbury was also a bit of an activist: He led a campaign to stop the use of boys as chimney sweeps, and he founded an organization to prevent animal cruelty.

8. DAVID BYRNE

 David Byrne poses in the 'Listening Lounge' during the Meltdown Festival launch at Southbank Centre on August 17, 2015 in London, England
Ian Gavan, Getty Images

According to a 1992 issue of Goldmine, music and "the tolerant philosophies of Emma Byrne's Quaker faith" were among the most frequently heard sounds Talking Heads frontman David Byrne heard growing up. "David's parents encouraged his own interest in painting and music (which intensified after the Byrnes visited a cultural exposition in Montreal during his fifteenth year), and he took up the guitar, violin, and the accordion."

9. JUDI DENCH

Though her parents were Methodists, Oscar-winning actress Dame Judi Dench converted to Quakerism after attending The Mount, a Quaker school in York, England. What initially attracted her to the faith? "I liked the uniform," she admitted. "I used to see these girls with their white white collars and blue uniforms, and I thought, 'That’s where I want to go.' Luckily, I got in." In 2013, she told YorkMix that while “I haven’t been to a Meeting, shamefully, for such a long time ... I think it informs everything I do. I couldn’t be without it."

10. BONNIE RAITT

As musician Bonnie Raitt told Oprah: "I think people must wonder how a white girl like me became a blues guitarist. The truth is, I never intended to do this for a living. I grew up in Los Angeles in a Quaker family, and for me being Quaker was a political calling rather than a religious one."

11. JOSEPH LISTER

1855: British surgeon and founder of antiseptic surgery, Joseph Lister (1827 - 1912), as a young man
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The British surgeon who promoted cleanliness and sterility (and the man for whom Listerine mouthwash is named) grew up in a wealthy Quaker family. Of course, this didn't stop him from being discriminated against. In fact, Lister studied medicine at the University of London precisely because it was one of the only institutions at the time that accepted Quakers.

12. PIERS ANTHONY

While agnostic today, best-selling science fiction author Piers Anthony grew up in a fairly devout Quaker family. During the Spanish Civil War, Anthony's parents left young Piers and his sister to their grandparents' care, and then went to "fight" in Spain. In his own words, "my parents were helping to keep those devastated children alive, by importing food and milk and feeding them on a regular basis. It was worthy work, and I don't fault it, but there was a personal cost."

13. CASSIUS COOLIDGE

Cassius Coolidge—the painter behind Dogs Playing Poker—was born to abolitionist Quakers in upstate New York. Side note: He's often credited with creating Comic Foregrounds, those novelty photo scenes you pay $2 to stick your head into, to make your body look muscle-bound at the beach.

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