Publicity in Politics

Roosevelt and Pinchot discovered that the ability to develop favorable press coverage could be a powerful political tool. Publicity was more than just the revelation of wrongdoing; effective communication was a valuable instrument in securing popular support for government programs and an energetic national executive. However, Roosevelt and Pinchot did more than promote a specific program or policy; they also projected an image of personal virtue. Used in this way, publicity focused public attention on individual attributes—publicity revealed who was honest and qualified, as well as who was corrupt or inept. It was a short step from here to an emerging politics of personality in which candidates used publicity to cultivate a personal appeal among voters. This was especially the case for reform politicians who sought to distinguish themselves from, and often ran in opposition to, mainstream party organizations. In fact, publicity techniques were well suited to a reform climate when many viewed organized parties with some suspicion and journalistic revelations of political corruption were common. Building up one’s image as the antithesis of the party politician played very well, whether campaigning for office or campaigning for policies once in office.66

At the same time, progressive reforms intended to root out corruption or diminish the influence of party bosses altered the terrain of political competition. The adoption of the secret ballot and the spread of the direct primary rendered traditional forms of securing votes either illegal or ineffective, leaving party managers in search of new ways to mobilize the public. As one writer noted on the eve of the 1908 presidential contest between Taft and Bryan, “The adoption of the secret ballot ... has put an end to the ease and facility with which it used to be possible to ... buy [votes] directly.” This resulted in “the development of the spirit of independent voting among the people,” and it required parties and candidates to “make the individual ballot caster everywhere see the issues of the campaign in the desired light.”67 According to historian Michael McGerr, these developments at the turn of the twentieth century marked an important shift in political campaigns toward a style of “advertised politics” that emphasized personality over partisanship.68 By 1908, both major parties had created publicity bureaus to coordinate press communications for their presidential campaign, replacing turgid campaign literature on the tariff or monetary policy with a decidedly modern way to reach the individual voter.69 “More and more,” the New York Times observed that year, “campaign management has come to follow strictly the lines of publicity adopted in business.”70 According to McGerr, campaigns turned to “the tools of advertising” in order to construct a “careful packaging of the candidate . [and] sell him to the voters.”71

Publicity created a new kind of campaign, one that endeavored to connect candidates with voters in a more direct fashion. This elevated the role of campaign strategists drawn from the personal circle of the candidate rather than the party. These publicity experts and press agents of the early twentieth century resemble the political consultants of our own day as they orchestrated “presidential booms” designed to generate national press coverage before the convention on behalf of hopeful nominees.72 In what may be the first documented example of a campaign consultant suing his client for unpaid bills, one William F. Clark took the former lieutenant governor of New York, Lewis Stuyvesant Chanler, to court in 1910 in an attempt “to recover $20,000 for services as head of the Chanler Press Bureau.” As the New York Times reported, “Clark alleges that he was engaged to give publicity to Chanler’s

Presidential aspirations. The latter denies that he so employed Clark or ever employed him in any capacity.”73 By 1908, in fact, party nominees chose individuals skilled in political technique to run their national campaigns rather than simply give the honor to a Senate leader or some other party chieftain as had been the tradition in the nineteenth century. For instance, Taft chose Frank Hitchcock to run his campaign, a man the New York Times described as one “who believes that successful politics is mostly the practical and systematic application of business principles to the task of vote-getting.”74 Publicity altered the character of political work, and the kind of individuals hired to perform that work.

Woodrow Wilson’s political career further illustrates how publicity, and the publicity expert, influenced early twentieth-century campaigns. Like other progressives, Wilson criticized party bosses and the congressional committee system for their secrecy, and he framed his own efforts to engage the public directly as a way to promote a more active citizenry—through publicity. In an unpublished essay from 1882 entitled “Government by Debate,” Wilson argued that the principal defect of contemporary American politics was the secrecy with which business was conducted, and that the most effective cure was the deliberation that inevitably accompanied the publicity of public affairs. “Publicity,” Wilson argued, “is more to be valued in the administration of government than wisdom which works in secret or prudence which rules in private.”75 Like Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson considered publicity to be the keystone in the construction of a more robust executive. “Pitiless publicity is the sovereign cure for ills of government which can be applied easily and effectively by men whom the people entrust temporarily with executive duties,” Wilson told a reporter shortly after his election as governor of New Jersey.76 Wilson struck a similar theme in a 1910 address: “The people are calling for open leadership ... they are tired of the hide and seek legislation.”77

As a candidate for governor and in his campaign for president in 1912, Wilson consistently invoked the language of publicity in calling for an active form of leadership that directly engaged the public. Speaking to an audience in Newark, Wilson declared that “there is no air so wholesome as the air of publicity, and the only promise I am going to make you, if you elect me Governor, is that I will talk about the government to you as long as I am able.”78 Similarly, the claim that “publicity is one of the purifying elements of politics” was a stock portion of Wilson’s stump speech in 1910 and 1912.79 As a candidate, Wilson called for a politics based on “Progressive methods,” which included “publicity, discussion, organized opinion, the pressure of systematic agitation, and independent voting.”80

As a practical matter, however, the “progressive method” suggested a publicity-oriented approach to campaigning that made strategic use of the press to reach voters outside of regular party channels. When he ran for governor in 1910, Wilson’s accessibility to reporters earned him goodwill and good coverage—an impressive feat in a state where Republican newspapers outnumbered Democratic ones by nearly two to one.81 In addition, Wilson enjoyed close relationships with the editors of Harper’s Weekly and the American Review ofReviews, who helped him develop nationwide notice as the president of Princeton University.82 Following his success in 1910, Wilson’s close circle of advisers, many of them experienced journalists, transferred the strategy used in New Jersey to the national stage. Frank Stockbridge, who managed Wilson’s press campaign for the 1912 Democratic nomination, described how “sixteen months before the Democratic convention ... a little group of friends persuaded [Wilson] to undertake a campaign of publicity, having for its object the creation of such a strong public opinion in favor of his candidacy that the pressure could not be resisted by party leaders.”83 As Stockbridge recalled, “The experiment was a novel and audacious one in American politics. It was a repetition on a national scale of Mr. Wilson’s experiment in New Jersey where he had gone over the heads of the politicians and appealed directly to the voters.”84

Specifically, Stockbridge organized a tour of the western United States a full year before the convention where Wilson made a series of public appearances that attracted attention to his candidacy. When Wilson complained about the tedium of meetings with journalists, answering the same questions each day, Stockbridge explained to him that he was “a personality of current local interest and would have to resign himself to that fact.”85

The 1912 campaign illustrates the publicity-driven, candidate-focused style of presidential politics taking shape. In an article in McClure’s Magazine subtitled “The New Art of Making Presidents by Press

Bureau,” George Kibbe Turner wrote that “direct popular choice of candidates had arrived ... and candidates, not parties must introduce themselves directly to voters.”86 Theodore Roosevelt’s entry into the race only heightened the focus on personalities that year.

Four years later, in 1916, publicity experts were even more important in crafting campaign strategies. Wilson faced Republican challenger Charles Evans Hughes, a Supreme Court justice with a national reputation as a reformer. For both campaigns, the intentions of more than 4 million voters who had supported Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 were largely unknown, and both sides viewed these “independents” as the key to the race. As one observer put it, both candidates needed support from those “ready to vote their convictions regardless of party ties.”87 The Hughes campaign hired the leaders of a Chicago advertising agency to “give to the Republican party a permanent organization of trained publicity experts, who will . apply to politics the same merchandising principles that are applied to successful business enterprises.”88 Although Hughes lost by a narrow margin (a shift of fewer than 4,000 votes in California would have won him the election), the lesson of the campaign appeared to be the value of publicity. As the Wall Street Journal concluded soon after, “If there is one thing the election has said which should sink into all men’s minds, it is that we should approach the voter—not the mob—by the most modern methods of publicity.”89

Indeed, the Democrats proved quite innovative in this regard. Under the leadership of former newspaperman Robert W. Woolley, the Democratic National Committee conducted “widespread publicity of a kind never before attempted.”90 In fact, Woolley’s “bigger impact was in bringing a new class of professional communicators and . practitioners into the world of presidential campaigning.”91 This included reform journalist George Creel, who served as Woolley’s special assistant. In a campaign memo, Creel advised that “we are living in a film age. The imagination of the hour is impressed almost more by ‘movies’ than by the word persuasive in print.”92 To that end, Creel commissioned the production of a campaign film entitled The President and His Cabinet in Action9 Creel also recommended placing ads “systematically and extensively in newspapers, weeklies ... and magazines.”94 With Woolley’s support, Creel created a successful advertising campaign that relentlessly portrayed the Republican nominee as a man reluctant to take a stand on the issues of the day. Under Creel’s direction, thirty-six prominent writers and journalists signed an open letter asking Justice Hughes to state his position on ten issues. The ad copy, which read, “Yes or No Mr. Hughes?,” ran in each city where Hughes appeared, often on the day he spoke. At the same time, Creel crafted an image of Wilson as a wise and principled leader, a task he accomplished with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War” and the hiring of several advertising agencies to place the slogan in newspapers and magazines and on billboards and streetcars.95 Creel’s efforts earned him wide respect. Gifford Pinchot, a Republican, called the 1916 Democratic campaign “a masterful realization of a systematic publicity plan.”96

In 1920, it was the Republicans who successfully used advertising techniques to portray their candidate to the voters. This job fell to Albert Lasker, owner of the Lord and Thomas agency in Chicago, one of the largest advertising firms in the country.97 In 1918, Republican national chairman Will Hays hired Lasker to help the GOP win back control of Congress. Two years later, Lasker and Hays “carried political advertising to a new level” in the service of Warren G. Harding.98 Lasker organized a publicity campaign around the slogan “Wiggle and Wobble,” an attempt to paint Wilson and the Democrats as unprincipled and inconsistent.99 Lasker planned for Harding to use the phrase at the end of a speech in order to make it appear as if the slogan arose extemporaneously from an offhand remark. Weeks earlier, however, Lasker had prepared signs and billboards with the slogan to be released at a strategic moment, and he instructed that no one reveal that “the publicity end of the campaign had anything to do with the expression and the thought appearing in the speech.”100

As publicity became a central feature of presidential campaigns, its original meaning as a liberal ideal increasingly gave way to its instrumental use in coordinated campaigns of persuasion. “Pitiless publicity” no longer implied the searching gaze of an investigative press, but the incessant search for public favor. Meanwhile, there arose a new kind of specialist, the publicity expert, whose mastery of technique could shape public sentiment on behalf of a client. To many observers, the value of publicity was the ability to convey the qualities of a candidate directly to the voter. As Richard Boeckel wrote in 1920, “The overwhelming majority [of voters] are going to cast their ballots on the basis of what they know about the candidate ... about his principles and his personality, his record and his promises.” Publicity promised a modern approach to winning elections. “The first requisite to being elected President in this new age of publicity,” Boeckel continued, “is to have a story of the kind that will appeal to the people, the second is to have the kind of a press organization that will get the story to them.” It was the publicity expert whose skills were needed to reach voters unmoved by traditional partisan appeals. “This year the man with the best story wins. The job of telling it—telling it and re-telling it to every voter in the language he best understands—falls to the publicity agent. ... the publicity man is this year’s president maker.”101 As Lasker’s subterfuge on behalf of Harding also illustrates, the 1920 election marks a culmination in the transformation of political style in which, to borrow Michael McGerr’s words, “political advertisers would manipulate the voter, ... shape his perceptions, and sell him a product.” With the perfection of publicity techniques, “politics entered a new realm of contrived images and salesmanship.”102

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