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."
[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.
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'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
Herbert 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."
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.
In 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.
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.