In the overheated, light-speed feedback loop of contemporary media, it’s easy for some irrelevant semiotic or symbolic detail to dominate political discourse for days at a time. If we could go back in time and talk to the journalists covering, say, the 1988 presidential campaign, how would we explain the way that “binders full of women” became a leading search term, Twitter topic and Tumblr inspiration (let alone explain what those things were)?
Then again, it can often seem as if the entire electoral process consists of questions of style and messaging that have nothing to do with one’s ability to govern the country but carry all kinds of perceived psychological and cultural freight. Political culture is full of wisdom and waggery that conveys the message that it’s all a Madison Avenue con, to which only you and I and other savvy observers are immune. Every four years, we choose between Coke and Pepsi; Americans vote for Dad when it comes to the White House and Mom when it comes to Congress. (Actually, in the era of the Tea Party, that has shifted. A whole lot of Americans have voted their crazy racist uncles into Congress, often all too literally.)
We crave narratives, and when necessary, we’ll make them up out of whatever fragments are available: Obama lost the Denver debate, and possibly the entire election, by looking downcast, stretching out his syllables, overusing the first-person singular. I’m not convinced that conservative commentators really believe that Obama is specifically to blame for what happened in Benghazi or that Candy Crowley is a left-wing hit woman – but they all have to pretend they do for a few days. The other day, the Salon editorial staff conducted an extensive email debate about the stray forelock that always seems to escape from Mitt Romney’s otherwise immaculate hairdo. It was meant, we decided, to suggest a note of bad-boy virility – a touch of Elvis Presley or Capt. Kirk after a tussle – lurking within the teetotaling Robo-Mormon. Here’s what we were all sure about: It wasn’t something that just happened.
But if the contemporary nexus of social media, the 24/7 news cycle and the increasingly sophisticated nature of political consulting and campaign messaging have accelerated and exaggerated the symbolic and superficial character of presidential campaigns, it’s no good claiming they invented it or caused it. Here’s what we would say to those 1988 political journalists, in my imaginary example above: “That thing with the binders of women ... It’s a little like Mike Dukakis in the tank. Only better! Because it happened organically, pretty much, and didn’t last nearly as long.”
It was of course the legendary GOP operative Lee Atwater who so memorably exploited some silly footage of Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee, driving a tank and looking, as David Brinkley observed at the time, rather like Rocket J. Squirrel. A shameless scumbag of amazing, even Homeric proportions, Atwater accomplished the most miraculous Jedi reversal in the history of American politics, recasting the party of money and privilege as the party of masculinity, and transforming the son and grandson of Connecticut millionaire banker Prescott Bush into cowboy-hat manly men from the Texas oil fields. But it’s important to recognize that, as satanic as he was, Atwater did not create those archetypes or our appetite for them. Even he couldn’t have sold the American people something they didn’t already want.
Indeed, the deeper you look into American political history, the more you become persuaded that there was no golden age in the past when elections were determined by sober and earnest debate on the issues. Sure, in most elections before the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, the personal charisma of the candidates (or lack thereof) was invisible to most voters, and the outcome turned primarily on factional and regional alliances. But the latter part of that sentence is just as true today. No one anywhere harbors delusions that Romney might carry New York, or Obama Alabama. We are tiresomely reminded on a daily basis that the 2012 election depends on tactical questions about Obama’s standing among working-class whites in Ohio, or Romney’s inroads among married women in the Virginia suburbs.
Seriously though, is Atwater’s Rocket J. Squirrel ad (which attached numerous falsehoods about Dukakis’ record to that ludicrous footage), or the idea that Romney’s awkward relationship with female voters can be summed up by “binders full of women,” objectively any more evil and stupid than what happened in the “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” election of 1884, arguably the dirtiest ever? Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland was hounded with that infamous chant as well as political cartoons featuring a weeping baby and mother after revelations that he had fathered an illegitimate child, John Edwards–style.
But Cleveland’s campaign paid that back with interest after Republican nominee James G. Blaine had a 1 percent faux pas of sorts, attending a lavish New York fund-raiser at Delmonico’s restaurant that charged $50 a plate (probably $1,000 or more in contemporary dollars). Democrats actually printed up a phony Delmonico’s menu and handed it out in the poorer neighborhoods of Manhattan, purporting to show what Blaine and his posse of “Millionaire Monopolists” had for dinner, including Continental-sounding but fictitious fare like “Ailes de vollaille à la Perigord” and “Plaisirs à la crème aux fraises.” (Maybe this was where Karl Rove got the idea to make John Kerry look “French.”) This was one of the earliest successful dirty tricks in American politics: Cleveland carried New York by 1,047 votes – premonitions of 2000! – and won the election, leading his supporters to chant: “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”
One could argue, of course, that Atwater’s charges against Dukakis were scurrilous and unfair, while Blaine really was the tool of millionaire capitalists and had it coming. I incline to that view myself, but the larger point is that psychology and symbolism and the manipulation of public information have played a leading role in American politics for a very long time. As historian Jill Lepore explores in a recent New Yorker article, campaign consulting, as an official business niche, goes clear back to the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign between rabble-rouser Upton Sinclair and Republican incumbent Frank Merriam. But the Cleveland election illustrates that its tools and tactics are considerably older than that.
Looking at what actually happened during the 1932 presidential election, for instance, as opposed to its reputation in popular memory, one sees bizarre pre-echoes of modern-day politics. If Mitt Romney’s policies sound superficially more like Herbert Hoover’s than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, it’s nonetheless clear that Romney and his advisers have modeled their campaign after FDR’s of eight decades ago. Most notably, Roosevelt tried to stick Hoover with all the blame for the country’s economic downturn (which clearly wasn’t fair), steered away from divisive cultural issues (so that both blacks in the urban North and KKK-supporting whites in the rural South would vote for him), and promised the country a “New Deal” while offering absolutely no specifics about what it would look like.
If that’s starting to sound like Bizarro World, it gets worse: Believe it or not, Roosevelt repeatedly accused Hoover of raising taxes and being a lavish spender, and he even had his running mate claim that the incumbent was “leading the country down the path of socialism.” Hoover, on the other hand, called Roosevelt a flip-flopping capitalist flunky who would cut taxes on the rich, slash the size of government, deregulate the economy and open the doors to destructive free-trade policies. No, I wouldn’t have believed any of that either if I hadn’t looked it up. But the real point is that all the rhetoric of that election was 100 percent crap, and it told people absolutely nothing about what to expect. Roosevelt won under false pretenses, we might say, and went on to become the welfare-state creator conservatives still love to hate 80 years later.
And what about the greatest president in American history, the one who’s the subject of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Oscar-bait motion picture? Well, as a marvelous historical essay about the 1860 campaign on the Lincoln Institute’s website explains, in February of that year, Abraham Lincoln thrust himself on the national stage with an Eastern tour that culminated with memorable speech about the problem of slavery at New York’s Cooper Union. But earnest addresses at colleges and churches weren’t going to get it done in that contentious year, and Lincoln had no compelling public profile. So a fellow Illinois Republican named Richard Oglesby, who may be the first important political strategist in the historical record, came up with one after digging into the stories about Lincoln’s frontier youth.
At the Republican state convention in Decatur, Ill., Oglesby staged a masterwork of pseudo-masculine political theater, one that would have brought tears to Lee Atwater’s eyes. It was almost certainly hokum, and it may well have been hokum that Lincoln himself helped cook up (although that remains unclear). Was it relevant to the question of Lincoln’s suitability for the White House, despite being hokum – or maybe because it was hokum? That’s up to you. One could argue that it changed history and led to the end of slavery.
Oglesby had a sign hauled into the hall that read “Abraham Lincoln: The Rail Candidate for President in 1860,” and announced that the poles holding up the sign were timber rails that had been personally split by Lincoln 30 years earlier. The delegates were prompted to call out: “Identify your work!” A delegate named Richard Price Morgan described what happened next:
After a moment’s hesitation, addressing himself to the Convention, being again seated, [Lincoln] said, quite solemnly, “I cannot say that I split these rails.” Turning to Mr. Hanks and the committee and looking at the rails, Mr. Lincoln asked: “Where did you get the rails?” Mr. Hanks replied: “At the farm you improved down on the Sangamon.” “Well,” said Lincoln, “that was a long time ago. However, it is possible I may have split these rails, but I cannot identify them.” Again the Convention shouted, “Identify your work! Identify your work!” At this time the care visible on Mr. Lincoln’s face gave way to a pleasant smile and he again said, “What kind of timber are they?” The committee replied, “Honey locust and black walnut.” “Well,” said Lincoln, his smile increasing, “that is lasting timber, and it may be that I split the rails.” Then he seemed to examine the rails critically, his smile all the time increasing, until his contagious merriment was visible, and he laughingly said, “Well boys, I can only say I have split a great many better looking ones.”
Convention delegates sawed up the rails and took the pieces home as souvenirs. Later, when asked about the whole thing as president, Lincoln said he had no idea who had cut that timber or where it came from.