Flashback 1884: A super-close presidential election where a late October gaffe may have made the difference
As we’re barreling toward Election Day, just over two weeks away, I’ve been reading a book entitled “Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician’s Quest for Recovery in the American West.” It’s a quick-moving, engrossing read about the future president’s life running a cattle ranch in the Dakotas after his mother and first wife died within hours of one another.
I’m still only about halfway through, but I ran across a portion last night I wanted to share, as it’s potentially relevant to this election and fascinating either way. Roosevelt had been a well-regarded legislator in the New York state legislator before he moved west, and he spent the first few months of his time in the Badlands wrapping up some of the loose threads from his political life.
There’s some back-and-forth over an interview that Roosevelt conducted with a newspaper in which he endorsed James Blaine for president. That was a big deal because Blaine was widely disliked by another wing of the party that had previously been allied with Roosevelt. He later disclaimed the interview, but then eventually endorsed Blaine anyway.
The presidential campaign got personal and bitter toward the end. “Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands” picks up the thread, noting that Blaine looked likely to win in the waning days of October.
Then, on Wednesday, October 29, just back from a successful campaign swing through the West, Blaine attended a meeting of a thousands ministers in the hall of the Fifth Avenue Hotel. At the podium, the Reverend Dr. Burchard, of the Murray Hill Presbyterian Church, referred to the Democrats scathingly as the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” This seemingly simple statement was packed with potential damage for the Blaine campaign, because it attacked three major voting blocs — anti-prohibitionists, Catholics, and southerners. Blaine, sitting nearby but engrossed in thoughts of his own upcoming remarks, failed to absorb the alliterative accusation.
Whitelaw Reid of the New York Tribune said he thought the comment cost Blaine 10,000 votes in Manhattan and Brooklyn alone.
That same evening, Blaine attended a fundraiser at Delmonico’s, a high-falutin’ restaurant that served terrapin, canvas-back, venison, pheasants, mallard, quail and rooster’s combs, and each course was paired with the appropriate wine. That sounds like the sort of fancy restaurants that have become near second-homes for presidential candidates of today, but Blaine was promoting himself as a man of the people.
The New York World ran an editorial slamming the dinner: “Is there a workingman now who believes that James G. Blaine is sincere when he pretends to be the friend of labor? When Blaine and his millionaire admirers were feasting at Delmonico’s last night, thousands of children in this great city, whose fathers labor twelve hours a day, went to bed hungry and many of them supperless.”
The election was close, and according to “Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands,” New York turned out be be the deciding factor. Cleveland narrowly won the state (“Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands” has the margin at 1,149 votes out of a total 1,167,169 cast; Wikipedia has it at 1,047 out of 1,171,312) and carried the national election.
The lesson: Presidential candidates can never be too careful in the waning weeks of a tight race. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would do well to try and avoid Blaine’s mistakes and eventual fate.
– Mason Adams