Presidential Elections

President’s Day Presentation
February 20, 2012

Good Evening and thank you for joining me on President’s Day. Until 1968 the celebration closest to today was Washington’s birthday, historically celebrated on February 22, which Congress established as a holiday in the District of Columbia in 1879. Congress, however, in 1968, combined the celebration of Lincoln’s Birthday, celebrated February 12 in many states but which was not a federal holiday, and Washington’s Birthday, into a single three day holiday to be known as president’s day and celebrated on the third Monday in February. In addition to becoming a great excuse to sell mattresses, furniture, and GMC Acadia’s, all of which are on sale today according to commercials I saw this weekend, President’s day, is a day to recall the accomplishments of the individuals who have held the office of president of the United States.

It is really quite humbling to speak in a room graced by the signatures of the presidents of the United States. At one time or another each of these men picked up a pen, signed his name, and passed on the piece of paper that is today on the walls around us. I am very grateful that this collection has been lent to the Clarke Library, both for a brief exhibit over the next few days to celebrate President’s day, and for an extended period later this year, as we as a country once again choose the president.

As some of you may know, the Clarke Library has an extensive collection of biographies written for presidential campaigns, thus the upcoming presidential election is both creating new material for us and gives us about a good a reason as we can find to display the biographies, and I am just thrilled that we will be able to enhance that exhibit with these wonderful signatures.

The holiday and the signatures that surround us offer a wealth of opportunities to tell stories about our democracy. My topic tonight though is focused not on presidents or their accomplishments, but presidential elections – how the voters in the world’s oldest democracy have made their decision about who should be its president.

And the simple truth is, despite having done it for more than two hundred years, we as citizens and voters have never really been very comfortable with the process. I am sure that you have heard, as have I the many complaints about the current candidates and primaries:

  • Complaints about negative ads,
  • Complaints about a lack of specificity on issues,
  • Complaints regarding candidates pandering to voters,
  • Complaints about the personal shortcomings of the candidates,
  • and a slew of other complaints allegedly staining the democratic process.

If you simply listen to the pundits on CNN, Fox, MSNBC or PBS who sing this song, you’d probably think the country is about to go over the abyss. Elections have never been this bad. The candidates have never been this incompetent. The sky is falling.

However before running for shelter it would be wise to view these complaints through the lens of historical perspective. Looked at that way, we as a people and most of the candidates who have been through this process have been complaining about presidential elections for most of the more than 200 years we’ve been electing presidents. What comes from looking at the long view of the process is somewhat reassuring. Despite our complaining, the process of selecting a president of the United States has proved to be generally robust and generally successful. It certainly doesn’t work perfectly. Improvements are certainly possible. But it does work, reasonably well most of the time.

Let’s start our conversation tonight with a single assertion; what we do today to select a president has absolutely nothing in common with the process the founding fathers thought they were enshrining in the constitution. Indeed a strict constructionalist who helped write the constitution in 1787 would be horrified by how this process plays out today – of course he probably would have been just as unhappy with the election of 1800.

What the founders envisioned was a process for selecting a president that was democratic in origin, but rather carefully insulated the final outcome from the electorate and its whims. The process as the founders envisioned involved three steps:

  • Voters elected members of state legislatures
  • The state legislatures selected distinguished citizens of the state to serve in the electoral college
  • The electoral college, a gathering of the most eminent and public spirited men in the country, would in its wisdom select the nation’s chief magistrate.

In some ways this is like the Catholic Church convening the College of Cardinals to elect a pope. You lock the wise men up in a fancy room, wait for the puff of white smoke indicating that a new leader has been selected, and then gather round to hear who the new leader will be. It is a process in which careful and deliberate consideration by wise and thoughtful people should lead to the selection of a competent, wise, and publicly spirited individual to lead the nation. And the only problem with this wonderful model is, it never worked.

Actually that is a bit of an overstatement, it worked twice. When the constitution was finally adopted there was a general sense that the person needed to fill the presidency, indeed the only person who could do the job, was George Washington. It was a rare moment of national unity and Washington was twice unanimously elected president by the electoral college.

But even during the Washington presidency observers could see trouble on the horizon. Washington’s government had divided into two factions with very different views on the roles and responsibilities of the federal government. In 1796 when Washington announced he would not serve a third term, both factions began to maneuver to elect their champion president – Vice President John Adams for the Federalists and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson for the Democratic Republicans.

A competition for the presidency had begun, and although the electoral college remained in place, its operation was subverted. The individuals selected to join the electoral college pledged loyalty before their election to one or another candidate. Slates of candidates were put before first the state legislatures and after 1836 in all but one state directly before the voters, and the winning slate dutifully went off to Washington to participate in the electoral college and formally cast the promised votes for their man. Today, although virtually no one realizes it, we continue this process. When you vote this November for a presidential candidate, you technically aren’t voting for that individual but for an unnamed slate of individuals who will go to Washington and cast their electoral votes as you have directed.

Legal niceties and subversion of the original intent of the founders put aside, what else can we discuss tonight? Perhaps we can spend the rest of our time together analyzing a narrative about the nature of presidential campaigns that goes like this:

  • New campaigns are sordid, endless affairs that are dominated by attack ads and sound bites, selling image not substance.
  • Old campaigns featured candidates who spoke forthrightly to the people about issues of substance making the election of the president a referendum on the great issues facing the Republic. 

And if that were true it would justify all of the complaining we hear about the decline of democratic values in the United States and the poverty of our contemporary election process. The problem is that the argument really isn’t true. Since 1796 the election of the president has always involved a mix of high principle and low blows, forthright statements of position and carefully avoiding the politically difficult elephant sitting in the middle of the nation’s living room, and the truth is the mix between principle and cheap politics has not necessarily changed for the worse as time has passed.

Rather than talk in the abstract about presidential elections I would like to discuss just a few past presidential elections, using them as examples why we as a people have always been ambivalent about how the president was selected and to suggest that the good old days of presidential campaigning may indeed be old, but they weren’t necessarily good. To make the case I would like to discuss several elections:

  • 1800 and the advent of mudslinging/ negative advertising
  • 1884 and what’s a voter do if the mud being slung happens to be true?
  • Both 1928 and 1960 as examples of the failed hopes for a new technology
  • 1956 and the beginning of the perpetual primary machine
  • Religious bias, looking at 1960, 1928, and 1856.


In 1800 both Adams and Jefferson “stood on their record,” that is they neither campaigned nor issued public promises about what they might do in office. They were men of character who were to be selected based on their moral compass, not their partisan platform or personal ambition.

Well at least that was the public stance. But moral ability aside, no rumor or innuendo about the other candidate was too unlikely to print in the partisan party papers of the day. John Adams was branded by Jefferson’s papers as a monarchist, an egotist, and a traitor. Jefferson, however was caricatured by newspapers supporting Adams as an atheist, a swindler, and a traitor. This went on with considerable rancor and at considerable length, and of the whole mess John Adams’s wife Abigail declared that abuse and scandal “rained down” to such an extent that it could have “ruined and corrupted the minds and morals of the best people in the world.” 

Put another way, mudslinging and misleading or simply wrong negative statements about the opposition in presidential campaigns is among the most time honored of American political traditions, and while today we may have honed the tradition to fit into a 60 second tv spot sponsored by a Super-PAC, the basic idea of finding something with which to tar the other candidate hasn’t changed all that much. And it is probably fair to add that at least so far, no candidate this year has accused anyone or has been accused by anybody else of being a traitor. Perhaps Abigail Adams would take that to mean we’ve made some progress.

The Truth Hurts

Staying for a moment with scandal, which is always a good place to stay if you are trying to keep people interested in a talk, we might stop for a moment and consider what happens when the scurrilous charges happen to be true? The issue was probably never put more clearly before the voters than in the election of 1884. The voters were asked to choose between the Republican James G. Blaine and the Democrat Grover Cleveland. The problem, from a moral point of view, was that both men could be viewed as deeply flawed.

Blaine the Republican was a man of impeccable personal morality, but he had a problem – in a long congressional career in which he drew no more than a $5,000 yearly salary (maximum) Blaine somehow became a millionaire. This need’s some explaining. Democrats were happy to suggest Blaine’s wealth came from influence peddling, accepting bribes, and the like, which Blaine of course denied and led to the catchy little taunt, “Blaine! Blaine James G. Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine. Burn this letter.”The letter is question to be burned was written in 1876 when Blaine was trying avoid charges that he had sold his vote in Congress to various railroad interests.

Blaine had secretly written a letter for the signature of another man, a railroad attorney, which absolved Blaine of all alleged wrong doing. In the cover letter that was enclosed with the artfully drafted denial of corruption, Blaine obliquely suggests to the attorney that should the railroad man sign the enclosed letter, Blaine wouldn’t forget his friends It didn’t help his case much that in the cover letter, Blaine, after emphasizing the need for the matter of his involvement in the denial to remain private, ended with the admonition “burn this letter,” that is the cover letter. But truthfully the Democrats didn’t have to work very hard at accusing Blaine of corruption since a substantial number of Republicans also thought he was a crook and bolted the party. 

In contrast, Grover Cleveland, the governor of New York and the Democrats candidate for the presidency was a model of public honesty. Indeed he was so honest that the New York City Democratic machine was one of the strongest supporters of his presidential bid, not because they believed in honesty or even liked the guy – in fact they hated him, but because they were willing to do anything to get him out of Albany where his reforms were ruining the spoils system on which the machine was based. But the bachelor Grover Cleveland had his own little problem, well actually the problem had pretty much grown up by 1884. Republican papers triumphantly revealed that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child, and Republican offered up their own little campaign taunt, “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa – gone to the White House ha, ha, ha.” Cleveland admitted the charge was true, but offered in his defense the claim to have financially supported both child and mother, which appears to be substantially true. 

So if you are a voter in 1884 do you vote for the public crook with a spotless personal life or the man with a private past but a spotless public record? As one dissident Republican nicely summed up the ultimate wisdom shown by the voters:“We should elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is admirably qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private life which he is so eminently qualified to adorn.”

In the end the voters picked Cleveland, a pattern that seems reasonably consistent among voters over time. All candidates have some personal blemishes, and if they are large ones, the public seems willing to forgive, if not forget, provided of course the candidate is honest about the shortcoming and seems reasonably repentant. As more than one person has demonstrated there are second acts in American presidential politics.


Then there is technology. Americans love technology as the fix for whatever ails us. In the twentieth century radio, then television, were both first hailed as panaceas to solve the flaws within our presidential election system and then, like all fallen technologies, subsequently debunked as just another part of the problem and perhaps something that made things even worse.

The election of 1928 showed both the promise and the limitations of radio. Actually the first presidential radio ads appeared in 1920 and radio had been used extensively by the Republicans in 1924 but the 1928 election, Republican Herbert Hoover v. Democrat Al Smith, was the first in which both parties systematically used radio to promote their candidate. Radio, professional politicians believed, ushered in a new era of campaigning. Why travel to rallies throughout the country when radio made it possible to enter every family’s home? Bruce Barton, who was one of the first and most successful public relations consultants of the era and a guru of Republican politicians (among his claims to fame is that he invented Betty Crocker) asserted radio “enables the President to sit by every fireside and talk in terms of that home’s interests and prosperity.”George Baker, the head of the Republican Party’s national publicity bureau, put it a bit less prosaicly, “It will knock the nonsense out of politics."

Ah, would that it was so. What projected over the radio was the candidate’s personality at least as much as his positions. With his broad New York City accent, no matter what Al Smith said on the “raddio”, as he liked to pronounce it, he came off as the urban bogeyman Republicans caricatured. Radio was kinder to Hoover. His own party admitted he was no spellbinder. One Republican politician fed up with then sitting Republican President Calvin Coolidge put it this way, “We have rallied for five years around the ice plant, and now the best we can hope for is four passionate years in pious adoration of the adding machine. ” But the adding machine nevertheless had a clear flat, Midwestern accent. Even if his radio speeches were boring, Smith called them ‘statistical essays,’ they came off as reassuring to listeners. Radio required personality as much as if not more than issues, and in 1928 Hoover was the man with the personality that Americans took to. It was a short lived reign, however in that the best radio politician of the era, Franklin Roosevelt, would defeat Hoover in 1932. Roosevelt not only defeated Hoover, he stole Barton’s idea of fireside chats on the radio, and successfully showed Republicans how to use them for 16 years.

Television brought similar claims about the great things it would bring to politics. Walter Cronkite, longtime and much beloved CBS newsman claimed it had an “x-ray” ability to detect “insincerity.”Senator Robert Taft, a leading Republican hopeful for the presidential nomination during the 1950s, called it a “medium for the truth.” Well, perhaps but the election of 1952 made it pretty clear that left to their own resources both party’s would use television to sell a candidate pretty much like laundry detergent, and the public would pretty much accept the idea. Republican national chairman Leonard Wood Hall put it simply, “Politics is show business.” 

To make the point the 1952 campaign featured Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower and sometimes his wife speaking to “Mr. and Mrs. America” in 60 second spots. Actually the public seemed to like this form of information better – Eisenhower caught a good deal of grief when the party bought 30 minutes of television air time for a major speech and accidentally pre-empted one of tv’s top rated shows, “I Love Lucy.” They were flooded with complaints, proving, one wag had it, that while America liked Ike, they loved Lucy. The Democrats, of course sniffed at the blatant advertising. Stevenson preferred the 30 minute speech format on tv. He gave 18 of them, but in the end conceded that the message didn’t “penetrate.” And what Stevenson left unsaid was that his campaign lacked the money to buy those 60 seconds spots which his party would have dearly liked to have aired. In fairness the blending of advertising and politics had been going on since the 1920s, it’s just that many short spots of Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign were very, very novel. By 1960, however, short political ads weren’t novel and 2 out of 3 Americans said political ads on tv were untruthful. So much for Taft’s “medium of truth.”

If television itself wasn’t a panacea, the idea of a televised debate between presidential candidates quickly became one. The great debate, as it was often styled, would bypass ghostwriters and admen and anyone else trying to manipulate the election. The candidates would have to stand there on their own feet televised to a national audience who could make up their own minds. Adlai Stevenson, who loves the idea, gushed eloquent about how this would bring back the good old days when candidates debated substance before the voters, using the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 as his model. Stevenson had to rely on the 1858 senatorial campaign between Lincoln and Douglas because the country had absolutely no history of presidential debates.

In 1860 Lincoln had stayed at home in Springfield as a good 19th century presidential candidate was supposed to do, awaiting the call of the citizens to serve. Douglas stumped widely in 1860 under the guise of traveling to visit his mother, and was widely criticized for it. Indeed the ruse ran so thin that after months of wandering about the country apparently unable to find his mother’s house but always willing to acknowledge the applause of an always spontaneous crowd that always happened to gather beside the roadside with a 90 minute or so stump speech he always just happened to have in his pocket, Republican papers began to print mock ads, allegedly placed by Mrs. Douglas seeking her lost child. Presidential debates were not something we did – even when Lincoln and Douglas sought the office.

The first time a presidential debate was even discussed occurred in 1940 when Wendell Wilkie, the Republican nominee for president, challenged FDR to a personal debate. Roosevelt, however, declined and that was the end of it during that campaign and for the next 20 years. Public pressure for a debate began to build in 1960 as a way to use technology to solve the problems perceived to exist in the election process. Nixon conceded that the pressure became “irresistible.” Besides, Nixon was not inclined to resist. He thought he was pretty good on tv. In 1952 he had saved his political career with a televised speech and he considered himself a good debater, particularly when compared to Kennedy, who both he and much of the country considered something of an intellectual lightweight. Kennedy, perceived as the underdog, had little to lose and much to gain in a debate so he was happy to oblige.

The 1960 debates between Nixon and Kennedy, although it would later be enshrined in national myth, actually were considered something of a bust at the time. The tv network asked for a head to head debate, but neither candidate wanted to take that risk so instead the format we have come to accept, news reporters asking questions, was adopted. A format one pundit said guaranteed that the “Great Debates” would be neither. Both candidates were extremely cautious in their answers and went out of their way to show deference toward their opponent. Nixon said that “I subscribe completely to the spirit that Senator Kennedy has expressed tonight.” Kennedy in turn said of Nixon’s statements; “The goals are the same for all Americans.”Commentators complained of the mutual admiration society. When it was all over, noted historian Henry Steele Commager fumed the 1960 debates featured “the glib, the evasive the dogmatic, the melodramatic,” over “the sincere, the judicious, the sober, the honest in political discussion.”

And what came down through political folklore reflected Commanger’s assessment. This was not a noble clash if ideas but rather a study in the importance of the televised appearance of the candidates. According to legend, Kennedy was tan and, athletic. Nixon was slouched, with sunken eyes, sweating with a faced drooped with strain. Actually Kennedy wasn’t quite that good looking nor was Nixon all that bad looking. But both the public and the news media, which seemed to expect Nixon to deliver a knock-out punch that never occured, focused on the ephemeral to explain what had happened.

Nor did the 1960 debates create a compelling demand by the public for additional face to face presidential meetings. The next presidential debate did not occur until 1976, when both Jimmy Carter and Gerry Ford felt they needed to prove something to the public, preferably at the expense of the other guy. It was only after a second debate in 1980, when President Carter debated candidate Ronald Reagan, that debates were finally enshrined as a necessary part of a presidential campaign, but never without an almost ritualistic complaint that somehow the debates never got to the substantive issues of the campaign.

Technology, whether it is radio, television, or the internet, is not the magic that solves our electoral complaints. Technology has reflected our practices rather than changed them.


Let me turn for a few minutes to primaries. Today we take it for granted that candidates will start campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire 18 months before the actual presidential election in November and that they, and we, will slog our way through the winter and spring with primary after primary, until someone amasses the magic number of delegates needed to be nominated at the convention. We wonder if there isn’t a better way – which may or may not be possible, but in point of fact there is certainly a different way, one the primaries were created to avoid.

By the late nineteenth century presidential candidates were picked at party conventions, and party conventions were run by party bosses. But a funny thing happened on the way to the 1956 Democratic convention – the primaries. Primaries had not been invented in 1956. Rather many states had instituted primaries during the progressive era as a way around what was called “boss rule.” In 1916 26 states held primaries but by 1956 that number had dwindled to 18. Presidential candidates were still picked at the party convention largely by the party leaders, as they had been before the beginning of the twentieth century - and party leaders did not select candidates for their outstanding service to the nation. As a Republican newspaper said of the Republican’s 1888 Presidential candidate, Benjamin Harrison, “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them, and others live in pivotal states.” Harrison, the paper admitted, fell into the last category. The altruism of party bosses hadn’t improved much in the 20th century. Warren Harding was chosen for the 1920 Republican nomination based on the fact that no one really objected to him, the convention was deadlocked, and he came from the pivotal state of Ohio. As Conn. Senator Frank Bandagee observed, “There ain’t any first raters this year … ; we got a lot of second raters and Warren Harding is the best of the second raters.”

Despite the power of the party bosses and the seeming meaningless of the primaries, in 1956 Democratic Senator Estes Kefauver decided to challenge the party’s presumptive nominee, Adlai Stevenson, using the largely forgotten primaries. Kefauver gambled that big wins over Stevenson in early primaries held in New Hampshire and Minnesota could propel him into a national campaign for the Democratic nomination. As it happened he won big and he was right. Stevenson realized he was in a fight for his political life and that the party leadership couldn’t save him. As a result, Stevenson plunged into the decisive Florida primary. How the 1956 Florida Democratic primary was waged shapes how primaries still work in presidential politics. A bit of history here, Stevenson’s 1952 presidential campaign is often held up by academics as one of the high water marks of substantive presidential campaigns. Stevenson focus was very consistently on substance, and when he was accused of elitism by some voters for his refusal to participate in the usual campaign fal-der-ra, he responded, “You’ll just have to forgive me if I go on trusting your intelligence.”

But in the end Stevenson lost the 1952 presidential elections to Eisenhower, who personally conceded there wasn’t much substance in his campaign, and in early 1956 Stevenson lost the early Democratic primaries to Senator Kefauver, who was from Tennessee, may have been a Yale-educated lawyer but he knew enough about the public to campaign wear his Tennessee “coon-skinned- cap,” a cap that was something of a national craze since it was worn by Fess Parker in the wildly popular if historically questionable Disney-TV show, “Davy Crockett.” Stevenson had to make a choice. This was not an election about substance. He was running against a wily politician who campaigned wearing a silly hat favored by American yahoo’s everywhere.  “I’m tired of losing elections” Stevenson was reported to have said, and in Florida he made his choice, selecting personalities over policies and expediency over virtue. In his own words he campaigned “like a candidate for deputy sheriff” shaking hands in barber shops and department stores and supermarkets.

He wasn’t necessarily all that great at it. Retail politics, as it came to be known, didn’t come naturally to Stevenson, who privately groused “no one worthy of being president should act like a panhandler.” As if to prove his natural inability to act as a panhandler, when a girl offered him a stuffed alligator at a campaign stop he responded, “For Christ sake’s what’s this?” And when an aide later told him what he should have said was something like, “thanks, I always wanted one of these for the fireplace mantel back home” Stevenson thought it was a joke and kept telling the story on the campaign trail. The aide winced, and was quoted as saying Kefauver “was born knowing what to do with an out-thrust alligator.”Despite his inability to deal successfully with stuffed alligators, Stevenson eventually won the Florida primary, and subsequently the California primary, which led him to the Democratic party’s nomination for the presidency, but his campaign style was fundamentally changed and so was the nature of how a nomination was won. Primaries suddenly mattered. And politicians everywhere came to realize that knowing what to do with a stuffed alligator was at least as useful in winning primary votes as having a well articulated position to present to young supporters on how endangered species really shouldn’t be captured and stuffed in the first place.

The importance of primaries was confirmed in 1960 when both Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson looked to the party bosses at the Democratic convention to deliver them the nomination. In contrast John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey took to the Democratic primaries where, Kennedy bested Humphrey and secured the nomination despite the party “regulars,” who were not overly fond of the Massachusetts senator, considering his intellectual ability limited, and his Catholic faith a definite liability. No serious candidate since 1960 has had the temerity to not participate in their respective party primaries and despite endless talk about such a thing, there has been no “brokered convention” where party leaders have decided the party’s presidential nominee in more than 50 years.


Mentioning Kennedy’s nomination brings up an important sidebar of presidential elections – religion. The topic is generally not a regular feature of presidential elections but this year it could become one because of Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. If you look at books about the candidates, as we do for the presidential biography collection, you’d have seen some interesting – for the first time since 1960 a candidate’s religion has begun to show up in book titles. Some books I found on make my point:

  • A Different God? Mitt Romney, the Religious Right, and the Mormon Question 
  • A Mormon in the White House? 10 Things Every American Should Know about Mitt Romney
  • Can Mitt Romney Serve Two Masters? The Mormon Church versus the Office of The Presidency of The United States of America

And my personal favorite for skipping the cleverly phrased question in the title and just going to the heart of the matter: Why Mitt Romney is Going to Hell by A. Christian

Religion is an interesting factor in presidential politics. While it is hardly the case that every candidate for the presidency has been a Christian worshiper who faithfully attended services each Sunday (after all, as I already mentioned, the Federalists accused Jefferson of being an atheist)voters seem more comfortable with “god fearing” candidates and most presidential candidates have had some nominal attachment to a mainstream Christian church.

The few who did not profess a specific faith, like Abraham Lincoln, were, nevertheless respectful of religion. By way of example, in 1846, when Lincoln ran for congress his opponent made Lincoln's lack of a church affiliation a campaign issue. Responding to accusations that he was an "infidel", Lincoln defended himself, by writing, “That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.... I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, or scoffer at, religion.”

For most of American history, however, the issue has centered not on infidels like Lincoln but rather on Catholics like Kennedy. Anti-Catholicism tinged the 1960 election. Norman Vincent Peale, for example, suggested that “American culture” was at stake if a Catholic became president. But since Kennedy eventually won anti-Catholic sentiment clearly was less of a factor than in the past. Al Smith, in 1928, however, shows us pretty clearly what that past looked like. Smith was the first Catholic to be nominated by a major party for president. Although Smith made clear in public pronouncements that he saw an absolute wall between church and state, many did not accept it. An example was a statement issued in September 1928 by the National Lutheran Editors' and Managers' Association. The document warned about "the peculiar relation in which a faithful Catholic stands and the absolute allegiance he owes to a 'foreign sovereign' who does not only 'claim' supremacy also in secular affairs as a matter of principle and theory but who, time and again, has endeavored to put this claim into practical operation." The Catholic Church, the manifesto asserted, was hostile to American principles of separation of church and state and of religious toleration.

Other Protestant clergymen were more direct in sharing their opinion of Smith. John Roach Straton, a popular evangelist of the day, thrilled thousands with a speech entitled “Al Smith and the Forces of Hell.”Another Protestant clergyman was even more straightforward when he proclaimed from his pulpit that “If you vote for Al Smith you are voting against Christ, and you will be damned.” The attacks on Smith’s Catholicism anchored in some theological base were supplemented by wild rumors. For example, on rumor was that if Smith won, Protestant marriages would be annulled. Another, if elected, Smith would expand the recently completed Holland Tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey underneath the Atlantic Ocean to create a secret path to the Vatican. Apparently Al and the pope both enjoyed long walks.

All this, however, was hardly anything new. Anti-Catholicism had a long history in 19th century politics. In 1856, for example, John Fremont, running as the Republican presidential candidate, was accused of being a “crypto-Catholic.” The charge stemmed from Fremont’s marriage – the marriage had been opposed by his wife’s father so the couple eloped, and were married by the the first clergyman who would pronounce them man and wife – as it turned out a Catholic priest. That he likely never again set foot in a Catholic Church was of no matter – the signature of a priest on the marriage certificate was good enough to claim that Fremont was a papist and use the charge against him.

My point here is that while Americans do tolerate a range of religious beliefs among their leaders, clearly some manifestations of religious belief is tolerated a good deal more easily than other kinds of religious belief. This year Mitt Romney could well find himself in the less tolerated category.


We have visited a number of points regarding how we elect presidents, but in conclusion, what would I hope you remember from with this evening. Perhaps a couple of final points might help us all through the coming election:

  • Going negative , whether by the candidate or more likely the candidate’s surrogates be it a partisan newspaper or a well-funded super-pac, is an old game. It may not be a particularly uplifting part of presidential campaigning, but its presence does not necessarily indicate the hopeless downward spiral of the nation.
  • Sometimes both the candidates do stink – the system has coped with the problem before and survived. If in the end you aren’t thrilled with either alternative, there will be a next time.
  • There is no magic technology to improve elections. So when you read that somehow the internet will renew the process, just say no. Been there, done that, it didn’t work.
  • Primaries may be endless exercises in trivial retail politics and these days with more debates than even the most committed political junkie can listen to, but they have become the indicator we use to test the viability of each person who seeks the job and, in however clumsy a way, to pull the selection of presidential candidates away from party professionals whose interests where primarily in winning elections and place it into the hands of the voting public, whose interests we hope are in being well governed after election day. 

As we look at the American way of selecting a president and lament the less than perfect process and outcomes that can occur, we might fear that E.B White had it right in 1944 when he wrote, “Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time.”

I am more inclined, however, to listen to the pragmatic if slyly phrased wisdom of Winston Churchill, who in 1947 said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.” How we select a president is far from perfect, but for all its many shortcomings, it consistently beats the other options that can be put on the table.

Thank you – questions or cookies?


Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Campaigns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Troy, Gil. See How they Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.