Presidential campaigns haven’t always been as negative as they are today. Some of them have been much worse.
Dr. Paul F. Boller Jr., history professor emeritus at Texas Christian University and author of several books on presidential and congressional campaigns, condensed volumes of research into an hour’s luncheon program Thursday in the fall Democracy in Action lecture for Howard Payne University’s Douglas MacArthur Academy of Freedom.
“I’ll not touch on the current campaign, because it’s not over yet,” Boller told a group that included HPU students and staff and well as high school students from almost a dozen area communities. His purpose, he said, was to explain “how we got where we are now. You understand the present better if you know how it got that way.”
Boller’s remarks began with the election of George Washington in 1789, a very “undemocratic” election without nominations by the electoral college. It wasn’t until late in the 19th century before candidates for president actually campaigned for themselves.
“The thought was that the office seeks the man, not that the man seeks the office,” Boller said. “It was considered beneath the dignity of the office for that to happen. It was called electioneering.”
The parties that nominating the candidates did the campaign work, Boller said, and the individual candidate stayed above the fray.
That began to change in the 1896 election when William Jennings Bryan, a skilled orator whose policies favored rural interests, traveled the nation speaking on his own behalf. He ran for office again in 1900 and 1908, and even though he never won the election, his approach revolutionized the campaign process.
“It became acceptable for candidates to travel in their own behalf,” Boller said.
For generations, national conventions were the place that parties chose their nominees, and the state primaries were not significant to the process. However, that began to change when John F. Kennedy entered several state primaries in 1960 to prove that a Catholic could win the support of Protestants.
“State primaries have revolutionized campaigns, and parties have declined in power,” Boller said. “Conventions have become less influential,” at least in the selection process.
At the same time, the role political parties play in financing campaigns has diminished while the individual candidates have been more responsibility for raising dollars.
The 1960 campaign also opened the door to the revolution of television in presidential campaigns, Boller said. He cited the televised debate at which viewers believed Kennedy had won the debate, while those who listened on radio deemed it a tie.
“Perceptions of TV viewers became focused on personalities rather than issues,” Boller said. “Political campaigns have become big entertainment. They’ve turned into horse races centering on personalities more than issues.”
Boller said one of the most scurrilous campaigns for president was in 1800 when John Adams, the nation’s second president and first vice president, was challenged by Thomas Jefferson. Neither participated in the mudslinging and remained friends, Boller said, but their supporters called Jefferson an atheist who was going to burn Bibles, tear down churches and eliminate the institution of marriage; and described Adams as old, bald and blind who wanted to arrange a marriage with one of his offspring to British royalty to establish an Anglo-American dynasty.
Boller’s pick as the silliest campaign was the one between incumbent Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison in 1840. It found Harrison supporters rolling giant balls around the nation as they held rallies, and created souvenirs of log cabins and served hard cider to show his support of the common man. Harrison won, but died shortly after his inauguration, and Vice President John Tyler became the nation’s first “accidental” president.
“The most serious campaign was in 1932 in the depths of the Great Depression,” Boller said. Herbert Hoover, a conservative, was opposed by the more activist Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Their campaign was all policy, high-minded and thoughtful,” Boller said.
Boller ended his remarks with a series of gaffs made by candidates during campaigns.
“On behalf of all historians, I express our appreciation for the significant contribution (Boller) has made in researching presidential campaigns and making it possible to enliven our own lectures on American history,” Dr. Justin Murphy, director of the Douglas MacArthur Academy of Freedom, said in his introduction. He said Boller has spoken at HPU on similar topics during three previous presidential election years, 1996, 2000 and 2004.