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Dirty Campaigning in the Roaring Twenties: Hoover vs. Smith

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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

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[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.

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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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A Microsoft Font Might Have Revealed Political Corruption in Pakistan
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Note to wrongdoers: Check your fonts. Right now in Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family are in legal hot water over what might be falsified government disclosures, according to Slate. The proof? The typeface used in the documents, as the investigative report submitted to Pakistan's Supreme Court notes.

Calibri, the sans-serif typeface that serves as the default for Microsoft applications, was designed in the early 2000s. But it didn't become widely available to the public until Microsoft Vista and its accompanying Office update were released in 2007.

This is where things have gotten tricky for the prime minister. His daughter may have fabricated documents that would show that she and her family had made the proper official disclosures on their finances. The documents, which were supposedly signed in 2006, were written with Calibri—a year before it was released to the public.

Defense lawyers argue, of course, that Maryam Nawaz Sharif could have just had access to Calibri before Windows Vista came out, since it was designed before 2007. The typeface's designer, Lucas de Groot, has said that the very first release he was aware of came out in 2006 as part of beta testing for the Vista operating system. But based on the sheer size of the files involved in such a beta product, it would have required "serious effort to get," a representative for LucasFonts told the Pakistani news outlet Dawn. And that would have been a super early test version, since the first public beta didn't come out until June 2006, four months after the documents were supposedly signed. Unless she was a huge computer nerd, Maryam probably didn't have access to Calibri back in early 2006, indicating the documents were faked. 

Whether you're turning in a term paper or falsifying legal documents, you're always better off going with Times New Roman.

[h/t Slate]

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9 Fascinating Facts About John Quincy Adams

Today marks the 250th birthday of John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States (and son of our second POTUS, John Adams). Born on July 11, 1767 in a part of Braintree, Massachusetts that is now known as Quincy, the younger Adams was a pretty interesting guy. From his penchant for skinny-dipping to his beloved pet alligator, here are some things you might not have known about the skilled statesman.

1. HE WAS ELECTED PRESIDENT DESPITE LOSING BOTH THE POPULAR AND ELECTORAL VOTES.

The election of 1824, which saw John Quincy Adams face off against Andrew Jackson, is the only presidential election that had to be decided by the U.S. House of Representatives, as neither candidate won the majority of electoral votes. Despite losing both the popular and electoral vote, Adams was named president by the House.

2. HE LOVED MORNING CARDIO.

When it comes to personal fitness, early birds have an edge. Studies have shown that morning workouts can curb your appetite, prevent weight gain, and even help you get a good night’s sleep later on. Nobody understood the virtues of morning exercise better than Adams. As America’s foreign minister to Russia, Adams would wake up at five, have a cold bath, and read a few chapters from his German-language Bible. Then came a six-mile walk, followed by breakfast. 

3. HE WAS AN AVID SKINNY-DIPPER.

As president, Adams got his exercise by taking a daily dip in the Potomac … naked. Every morning at 5:00 a.m., he would walk to the river, strip down, and go for a swim. Sadly, the most famous swimming anecdote likely never happened. The story is that when Adams refused an interview with reporter Anne Royall, she hiked down to the river while he was swimming, gathered his clothes, and sat on them until he agreed to talk. But modern historians tend to agree that this story was a later invention. That’s not to say, however, that Adams never talked about Royall. In his diaries he wrote “[Royall] continues to make herself noxious to many persons; treating all with a familiarity which often passes for impudence, insulting those who treat her with incivility, and then lampooning them in her books.”

4. HE ENJOYED A GOOD GAME OF POOL.

Adams installed a billiards table in the White House shortly after becoming president. The new addition quickly became a subject of controversy when Adams accidentally presented the government with the $61 tab (in reality he had paid for it himself). Nonetheless, political enemies charged that the pool table symbolized Adams’s aristocratic taste and promoted gambling.

5. HE WAS AN AMAZING ORATOR, BUT TERRIBLE AT SMALL TALK.

Although Adams was nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent” for his unparalleled public speaking ability, he was terrible at small talk. Aware of his own social awkwardness, Adams once wrote in his diary, “I went out this evening in search of conversation, an art of which I never had an adequate idea. Long as I have lived in the world, I never have thought of conversation as a school in which something was to be learned. I never knew how to make, to control, or to change it.”

6. HE KEPT A PET ALLIGATOR IN A BATHTUB AT THE WHITE HOUSE.

Adams had a pet alligator, which was gifted to him by the Marquis de Lafayette. He kept it in a tub in the East Room of the White House for a few months, supposedly claiming that he enjoyed watching “the spectacle of guests fleeing from the room in terror.”

7. WHEN IT CAME TO POLITICS, HE PLAYED DIRTY.

The presidential election of 1828—when incumbent John Quincy Adams got crushed by longtime rival Andrew Jackson—is famous for the mudslinging tactics employed by both sides. Adams’s side said Jackson was too dumb to be president, claiming that he spelled Europe “Urope.” They also hurled insults at Jackson’s wife, calling her a “dirty black wench” for getting together with Jackson before divorcing her first husband. Jackson’s side retorted by calling Adams a pimp, claiming that he had once procured an American girl for sexual services for the czar while serving as an ambassador to Russia.

8. HE’S RESPONSIBLE FOR ACQUIRING FLORIDA.

Next time you find yourself soaking up some rays in the Sunshine State, take a moment to thank Adams. As Secretary of State, Adams negotiated the Adams-Onís Treaty, which allowed the U.S. to acquire Florida and set a new boundary between the U.S. and New Spain. That’s right: Walt Disney World might not have been built if it weren’t for the sixth president.

9. HE KIND OF HATED BEING PRESIDENT. 

Adams once reportedly stated, “The four most miserable years of my life were my four years in the presidency.” But even if he hated being commander-in-chief, Adams couldn’t bear to be out of the political loop for too long. After finishing his term as president, Adams served 17 more years in the House of Representatives, where he campaigned against further extension of slavery. In fact, he died shortly after suffering a stroke on the House floor.

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