“Ahh,” I thought to myself, “if only I could return to a time before TV. Before even radio, when no one had to hear guys beating each other up over who should be President.”
Then I stumbled on the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox, an online repository of historical recordings. And there, tucked in among the recitations of Casey at the Bat and songs from Victor Herbert operettas, I found a collection of Victor Talking Machine recordings made by the three guys who were vying for President 100 years ago this month: The Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft; the Democratic challenger Woodrow Wilson; and the popular party crasher, former President Theodore Roosevelt, running for a third term (after spending four years on hiatus in Africa or someplace) on the Progressive, or Bull Moose Party, ticket.
Even on these scratchy old recordings, the candidates really rip into their opponents, each aiming his most pointed barbs at the guy most likely to siphon off his votes.
Listen to Taft, once a close friend of Roosevelt. Just four years earlier, while running for president in 1908, Taft made this recording basically assuring voters he would be just like Teddy, only, presumably, with fewer teeth showing (Also considerably more out of shape, famously requiring his own supersized White House bathtub).
Now, Taft is being bitterly challenged by Roosevelt, who sees him as having sold out to the big business trusts.
In a recording made October 1, 1912, Taft accuses his opponent—and make no mistake, he’s talking about Teddy—of throwing up a “fog of misrepresentation and demagoguery.” He also accuses his rivals of “sewing dragon seeds,” a phrase that I’d personally like to see make a comeback (“Mr. Speaker, the gentleman from Kansas is once again sewing dragon seeds!”).
But in a speech recorded October 12, Taft makes a tactical error—a gaffe, we’d call it— that may explain why he failed to endear himself to the masses: He says the American people would be “foolish” to vote for anyone else. Now, I’m no spin doctor, but I’m pretty sure a savvy politician always, always assigns limitless wisdom and powers of discernment to the voters at all times. I really can’t imagine either President Obama or Governor Romney turning to the camera, jerking his thumb and winking, “You’d have to be an idiot to vote for this guy!” (An early warning of Taft’s tin ear came in a recording he made the first time he ran for president, in August 1908. That Victor disc, entitled “Irish Humor,” features Taft speaking for more than three minutes about how funny the Irish are, yet he never tells a single joke).
Teddy Roosevelt, for his part, was still wildly popular with voters, but he was running against two extremely powerful political parties. Happily, the recordings here reveal him as sounding almost precisely the way we’d expect Teddy Roosevelt to sound: Excitable, plain-speaking, and occasionally taunting. His best rhetorical flourish comes at the end of a September 1912 recording in which he pillories the big business interests who oppose him. “NNNNAtch-ur-ally,”he bellows, “They will do all they can to break down the only real enemies that they have…” Those enemies being, of course, TR and his own Bull Moose party.
In a spirited defense of his trustbusting ways, on September 22 1912 Teddy recorded a speech in which he ridicules criticism that he threatened the future of Standard Oil with his “Abyssinaian treatment”of them. Teddy clearly loves saying “Abyssinian treatment,” as he keeps repeating it. He even goes on to charge that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans would ever have the guts to lay the ol’ Abyssinian treatment on Standard Oil the way he would. Unfortunately for us 100 years hence, “Abyssinian treatment” has apparently fallen from the nomenclature. I cannot find any explanation of what it means, and I must have searched Google a good three minutes looking for it.
Finally comes the Democratic challenger Woodrow Wilson, who knows full well he’s got this thing wrapped up, since Taft and Roosevelt are splitting the Republican vote. He seems to hold the most disdain for Teddy, though, as he goes after the “third party” pretty good in a speech recorded September 24, 1912.
Wilson is not much of a speaker—especially compared to Taft and Teddy, who at times fairly bark their lines into the acoustic recorder’s microphone. Befitting his background, Wilson is professorial and soft-spoken. Still, his detached delivery infers that his opponents are, really, beneath contempt. Listen to his dismissive comments regarding the “third element,” about whom, he sniffs, “the less said the better.
“To discuss it would be interesting, only if I could mention names. And I have forbidden myself from (doing) this.”
Yeah, he’s saying, “I’m looking at you TR!”
The aim of the Democratic party, Wilson adds, is to see to it “that the big fellow cannot put the little fellow out of business.” Charming the way he says little fellow: “Lit-tuhl Fell-lew.”
Three guys running for President in 1912; every one of whom has either been President already or is about to become President. That’s something of a record, I think. And proof that our political climate has always been colorful, contentious, and uniquely, wonderfully, American.
P.S.: For extra credit, take a listen to this 1912 campaign stump speech by Missouri Congressman Champ Clark, who served in the House of Representatives from 1893 to 1921. The best part comes right at the start, when he opines, “Of course, everybody stands around and asks what I think about zinc.”
Oh, what I would give for a world where everyone’s main concern is zinc.