During election seasons, an ever popular parlor game for political historians is finding and seeking candidate antecedents. For example, “Is Bernie Sanders William Jennings Bryan?” is making the rounds.
And if Trump is trumped, what footnote to history will he become? If Trumps goes gently – or not so gently – into the electoral night, he will be another William Randolph Hearst.
In 1904, the Democrat Party was looking for a new standard bearer. In 1896 — considered one of the most important elections in US history — William Jennings Bryan ran a populist campaign directed against, amongst other targets, Wall Street and the Trusts. Sound familiar as in Bernie Sanders?
Despite the enthusiasm generated by his now iconic “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic convention, Bryan lost a fairly close election to the Republican establishment candidate William McKinley. Jeb Bush if he can rally his campaign?
Had the “Great Commoner” won, arguably it would have been a “political revolution” — like the one envisioned by Sanders.
Ironically — in comparison with the (Jewish) Sanders crusading against Wall Street — Bryan’s metaphor of crucifixion was often seen as coded anti-Semitic language. See Ted Cruz’ “New York” values.
(Although, when Bryan spoke before Jewish audiences, he said, “no one can better sympathize with the struggling masses in this campaign than can the Hebrew race.” Some of Trump’s odder quips at Jewish Republican fundraisers?)
In 1900, Bryan would run again, again on a platform of Free Silver — even as the economy was booming on the gold standard — and as an anti-imperialist opposing the ongoing war in the Philippines, an issue that never gained traction. He lost again, handily, to McKinley. (Jeb’s second term?) Bryan would lose a third time to Taft in 1908.
In 1904, Bryan chose not to run. And, Hearst — who had just been elected as one of New York’s Congressional Representatives — saw an opening.
Although elected for a second term to Congress, Hearst’s political career would ultimately be stillborn, running unsuccessfully for Mayor of New York in 1905 and 1909, for Governor of New York in 1906, and for Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1910.
In many ways, Hearst’s 1903 – 1904 campaign was the first case of a wealthy media celebrity thrusting himself onto the national political stage. In our time, Trump the reality TV star is big. In his day, Hearst was HUGE.
A bicoastal billionaire, Hearst built his newspaper empire around the San Francisco Examiner and New York Journal. While Hearst’s tabloids (a term he found praiseworthy) were accused of “yellow journalism” (including the jingoistic drumbeat that preceded the 1898 war with Spain), their popularity was derived from their comprehensive treatment of the lives and concerns of working people.
[from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Kane was modeled after Hearst. In this scene, Kane makes the statement during the run up to the Spanish-American War]
During the 1904 nominating campaign, Hearst was not unlike Sanders. In some ways, Hearst out-Bryaned-Bryan in his radical platform. Hearst advocated government-ownership of railroads, telegraphs, public utilities and possibly mines, a graduated income tax, an eight-hour workday, antitrust legislation, the popular election of United States Senators, and the rights of labor unions.
Hearst and Trump are most similar in that both broadcast their message directly to the people. A master of the social media of his era, Hearst used his own newspapers — along with 200 others who endorsed his candidacy – to win hearts and minds.
In addition, each claimed their own personal wealth meant they were beholden to no moneyed interests. Actually, Hearst was worth more than seven times Trump in today’s dollars. An April 1904 letter to the editor of the New York Herald by Arthur Brisbane sums up Hearst’ appeal as an independent man:
The American people – like all people – are interested in PERSONALITY. If they are asked to vote they want to know for whom they are voting for . . . If any man cast a vote for President he will know that Hearst is answerable only to him. Hearst has gone back to the old-fashioned plan. He appeals to the people – not to a corporation . . . Not even the most venal of newspapers has suggested that anybody owns Hearst, or that he would be influenced by anything save the will of the people in the event of his election.
Ultimately, that’s Trump’s personality pitch. For all his ego, Trump’s promise – his populism — is to fulfill the will of the people.
As Hearst’s run gained steam, he was repudiated for the crude journalism of his tabloids, his hubris, his supposed ignorance, and conspicuous display of riches:
It is not simply that we revolt at Hearst’s huge vulgarity; at his front of bronze; at his shrieking unfitness mentally, for the office which he sets out to buy. All this goes without saying. There never has been a case of a man of such slender intellectual equipment, absolutely without experience in office, impudently flaunting his wealth before the eyes of the people and say, “Make me President.”
That was by Rollo Ogden of the New York Evening Post. Haven’t Cruz, Rubio, Bush, Kasich, and Christie on his way back to Trenton said the same?
And aren’t the National Review and the conservative op-ed writers at The New York Times channeling Henry Watterson of the Louisville Courier-Journal when he wrote of Hearst’s potential nomination?
Does any sane Democrat believe that Mr. Hearst, a person unknown even to his constituency and his colleagues, without a word or act in the public of his country, past or present, that can be shown to be his to commend, could by any possibility be elected President of the United States? But there is the Hearst barrel. . .
The “Hearst barrel” is the 1 billion that Trump has vowed to spend if necessary.
In the end, the “Hearst Boom” fell short. Conservative Democrats rallied against him. And, many supporters of the deeply religious Bryan could not get past Hearst’s colorful bachelor romantic life that was not without New York showgirls. (Hearst conveniently married just as the campaign begun.) Today Trump still gets dinged for his serial – or not so serial – monogamy.
Ultimately, with Bryan having bowed out and Hearst proving unpalatable to both Bryan and the Democratic establishment, the Democrats nominated a relative no-name, the conservative Alton B. Parker . (There was even an attempt to bring back Grover Cleveland for a third term when third terms were allowable.)
Parker was easily defeated by Roosevelt. Romney v. Obama. Clinton over Kasich after Trump fades.
But with any of these parlor games, the past never neatly corresponds with the present nor necessarily provides heedful precedents.
Hearst didn’t really lose because he was a media celebrity per se. Back then, the nominating process was done at state party conventions that did not favor a relative newcomer/outsider like Hearst. There were no primaries or caucuses where Hearst could spend his barrel. And, a Hearst nomination was always far more imaginable than a Trump one – at least when Trump started.
Hmm, what would have a Hearst presidency looked like? Well, no Roosevelt on Mt. Rushmore. Actually, maybe like Roosevelt’s had the Bull Mooser won in 1912. Maybe like Sanders if he does the unimaginable.
But Welles could still have Kane say Rosebud. Even a President Kane would be searching for something he never had.
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