The modern media is linked so inextricably to contemporary political campaigns that it is a little odd that the 100th anniversary of this partnership has come and gone almost unnoticed. For it was in the summer of 1900 that the Biograph Co. made a two-minute silent film of President William McKinley, who was up for reelection in the fall, walking solemnly and self-consciously around his back yard in Canton, Ohio, a wary eye on the camera.
The clip seems rather uneventful to us today, but it thrilled audiences of the time and was certainly the closest that many thousands of people had ever come to an encounter with a U.S. president.
Somewhat more engaging is a new recording available from Marston Records. Titled “In Their Own Voices: The U.S. Presidential Elections of 1908 and 1912,” this two-CD, 2 1/2-hour reissue captures the voices of four legendary American politicians, three of whom--Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson--served as our 26th, 27th and 28th presidents, respectively. William Jennings Bryan, one of the era’s great orators, ran unsuccessfully for the presidency three times (in 1896, 1900 and 1908) and rounds out the collection.
We may be familiar with still photographs of Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson and Bryan, but it is an eerie experience to hear their long-dead voices come to life again, arguing heatedly for causes long since decided. These are the first commercial recordings ever made by important American politicians, and Ward Marston, founder of and producer for Marston Records, has worked his customary miracles in making the sound as immediate as possible.
Not surprisingly, it is Teddy Roosevelt who leaves the strongest impression. He was already out of office by the time of his recordings, having served as president after McKinley’s assassination in 1901 until the election of Taft in 1908. Yet he was so disgusted by his former vice president’s four years in the Oval Office that in 1912 he founded the Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party to run against both Republican Taft and Democrat Wilson.
The best of Roosevelt’s speeches were captured on cylinder by the Edison Co., Thomas A. Edison’s less than fully successful attempt to capitalize on one of his most significant inventions. Four speeches, each of them lasting about four minutes, were recorded in August 1912 at Roosevelt’s palatial Long Island estate, Sagamore Hill. And despite some surface noise, they are astonishingly vivid souvenirs.
“I believe in the right of the people to rule,” Roosevelt declaims. “I believe that the majority of the plain people of the United States will, day in and day out, make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller class or body of men, no matter what their training, will make in trying to govern them.”
The more subdued but equally well-spoken Woodrow Wilson pointedly refused to acknowledge the Progressive Party by name, although he made his displeasure known. “As I see it, it is made up of three elements in particular. The first consists of those Republicans whose consciences and whose stomachs could not stand what the regular Republicans were doing. Added to this element are a great many men and women of noble character and of elevated purpose who believe that this combination of forces may, in the future, bring them out on a plane where they can accomplish those things which their hearts have so long desired. I have no word of criticism for them. Then there is a third element in the new party of which the less said the better. . . .”
Taft had originally planned to sit out the 1912 campaign, as, he thought, befitted a sitting president. The entrance of the Progressive Party into the race made him reconsider his position: “Even a cornered rat will fight!” he is said to have explained to one journalist. His recordings are probably the dullest in this collection--he does not seem to have been a natural orator, and he sounds as if he is carefully following a prepared script.
Nor does William Jennings Bryan sound as exciting as he was said to have been by people who heard him in person; he, too, seemed restricted by the new medium. True, the recordings he made in 1908--for Edison, the Victor Talking Machine Co. (later RCA Victor and still later BMG), and the Columbia Phonograph Co.--came more than a dozen years after the electrifying “Cross of Gold” speech ensured his initial candidacy in 1896. But Bryan still had much of his career ahead of him, and it is too bad that this fiery and eloquent Nebraskan is remembered today mostly for his part in the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, when he was tired and only a few weeks from death.
“In Their Own Voices: The U.S. Presidential Elections of 1908 and 1912" is available from Marston Records (https://www.marstonrecords.com). The early film of McKinley in his back yard in Ohio is available from Kino Video (https://www.kino.com) in a collection called “The Movies Begin: ‘The Great Train Robbery’ and Other Primary Works.”