Presidential Candidates Crave the Spotlight. 200 Years Ago That Was Taboo. Here's Why.
For a century, presidential candidates were discouraged from openly campaigning — lest they appear power hungry like the British king America revolted against. Here's why that all changed.
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This is the U.S. secretary of war in 1908, William Taft. One day, he decides that he wants a formal portrait of himself. The photographer arrives, but then the phone rings. He starts taking pictures anyway. On the phone is Taft’s friend Theodore Roosevelt, the president. It’s a long conversation, but suddenly, the photographer lucks out. Taft learns that Roosevelt’s chosen him to run for president as his successor. It’s a good choice. Taft goes on to the campaign trail and wins. It’s an historic win because, even though he’s the 27th president, he’s only the first president to win after running a big nationwide campaign tour. Before him, presidential candidates were expected to stay quiet, sit at home. Several decades later — [Music playing] So how did we get here, from a time when personally campaigning for president was unheard of to — We’ll start in 1789. George Washington becomes America’s first president. The founders are hell-bent on making sure a president can’t accumulate too much power. Remember, they just kicked out a king. They don’t want another one of those. They want a president to be humble, like the George Washington depicted here as a simple farmer. If a candidate goes directly to the public, campaigns for themself and asks for votes, it could be a warning sign. They may be power-hungry, a wannabe English king in waiting. “The office must seek the man, not the man the office,” one historian explained. Basically, today’s campaigning would seem very sketchy indeed. Anyway, Washington sets the tone. He’s careful not to appear at all like he wants the presidency. He’s there out of duty. Washington’s example will loom large over presidential candidates for the next century, even as the country quickly changes. This is a political cartoon from 1852. That’s a presidential candidate. That’s a political party boss. And that’s the candidate’s mouth, kept shut. As the country grows, political parties also grow. They choose who the candidates will be and they do all the campaigning on the candidate’s behalf. The candidates, well, they’re expected to stay reserved, Washington-like, mouth shut. But occasionally, candidates campaign anyway. And they’re the ones who slowly chip away at tradition. Let’s go to 1860 for one glaring example. Abraham Lincoln is running against three others for the presidency. One of them decides to throw precedence out the window. Stephen Douglas, a man who’s in danger of losing, decides to go on a big campaign tour. But because of tradition, he can’t just come out and say what he’s doing. So Douglas makes excuses. He says the tour is in order to see his mother in upstate New York, visit his childhood home in Vermont, and watch his brother-in-law graduate from Harvard. Along the way, he makes campaign speeches, and gets heaps of criticism for doing so. The New York Times writes that the presidency is “too high to be reached by a mere stump speaker, and too dignified to be canvassed for like a county clerkship or a seat in Congress.” Douglas, of course, loses, but the size of his stumping tour is another step towards public campaigning. Things will loosen up a bit more, quite by accident, on a front porch in Ohio two decades later. Meanwhile, the political parties have gotten so big and so corrupt there’s a backlash against them. Americans want to interact more with the candidates directly, without the party machines getting in the way. Enter Republican nominee James Garfield. He’s planned to spend the election of 1880 laying low at his home in Ohio, just as candidates usually do. But then, people keep showing up at his house. They want to see their candidate in person. Garfield’s got to say something. He can’t just ignore them. So he gives a bunch of short speeches from his front porch. Garfield has stumbled on a way to personally campaign without risking criticism by going on some big campaign tour. He just does it from home and says it’s because people just showed up. He wins. But this doesn’t turn the tide entirely. 16 years later, however, there’s an upset at the Democratic National Convention. An obscure Nebraska congressman is nominated for president, William Jennings Bryan. He’s so polarizing that many in his party won’t campaign for him. That means Bryan has to do it himself, which is fine, because his whole persona is being a voice for the common people against powerful institutions. It makes sense that he’d ignore political traditions and instead speak to voters himself. He covers 27 states. His opponent, William McKinley, on the other hand, doesn’t hit the road. He takes a page from Garfield’s book, and give speeches from his own front porch. “My fellow citizens —” But it’s all much grander this time. There are parades out front. 750,000 people come to visit. Both strategies are extreme for the time, but McKinley’s is safer. One way to look at what’s going on here is with this pro-McKinley cartoon. It plays up their age difference. McKinley served in the Civil War when Bryan was still a baby. Bryan is now 36, part of a whole new generation. He’s less connected to the colonial traditions that kept candidates at a distance from the public. McKinley ends up winning anyway, but when they have a rematch for president four years later, McKinley doesn’t actively campaign for re-election because now McKinley is a president. And damn the winds of change, remember, the presidency is too sacred an office to use for campaigning. Enter the man so consumed with the limelight that his daughter once said he wanted to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” Teddy Roosevelt, McKinley’s running mate. No one said vice presidential candidates can’t stump. As Bryan and Roosevelt go at it in 1900, we see two young, brash candidates drawing crowds with their charisma. Or as historian Gil Troy puts it, they “helped bury a century-old tradition of candidate passivity.” And then four years later, the man who loves a crowd, now President Teddy Roosevelt, falls silent when it’s time to run for his re-election. Presidents still mustn’t campaign. Now is when we come to William Taft, whose big smile we saw at the beginning. And I want to use this image to explain what happens during the election of 1908. On the right is a Taft mannequin. On the left is a William Jennings Bryan mannequin. He’s running again, for a third time. Let’s look closer. There’s a phonograph playing pre-recorded speeches by the candidates. Signs encourage voters to also hear the candidates’ rebuttals to each other. It’s even assumed that voters will pay money to hear all this. That’s how far American norms have shifted in the new century. They expect a more direct democracy with accessible candidates. Now the funny thing about this is, is that Taft is totally against this idea at first. He’s more keen on staying old-school and holding a front porch campaign. No one really shows up. But with Bryan on the road getting all the attention and Taft’s allies pushing him to do the same, he doesn’t have a choice. This is how it works now. He hits the campaign trail, literally following in the footsteps of Bryan. It goes great. He wins. Historian Richard Ellis notes that Taft “helped erase the association between stumping and losing.” Like I said at the beginning, the first president to be elected after making a full campaign tour. It’s not like there’s something about Taft that makes him the first president to stump mightily and win. It’s the combination of incremental changes in American society and behaviors by earlier candidates. If we zip ahead to 1944, we can look back and see just how far things have come. It’s Franklin Roosevelt’s last campaign. At one point, he gets driven 50 miles through the streets of New York City, in an open car, in winter. “And a great welcome from all the boroughs.” An incumbent president pleading his case to the public for a fourth term. The campaigns, the rallies, they all just become part of seeking the presidency. So when you watch presidential candidates on the campaign trail, sitting in diners, riding in buses, shaking hands and taking selfies, and crowd surfing, it’s not quite what the founders intended, but it’s what the people demanded. [Cheering] So five minutes into the video, we talked about President McKinley’s famous front porch campaign. Turns out McKinley is famous for another type of public appearance. His two inaugurations were the first to ever be recorded by a moving picture camera. If you look closely, you can see the chief justice of the Supreme Court raising his hand to give the oath of office. Consequently, McKinley’s was the first presidential funeral to also be filmed. He was assassinated during his second term.