“Our Candidate Is Not Optimistic”: Coverage of the Presidential Election in “LIFE” Magazine, 2 November 1928, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On 6 November 1928, Americans went to the polls in the thirty-sixth presidential election, choosing between Republican Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce, and Democrat Al Smith, the governor of New York. In a campaign that highlighted such major issues as tariffs to protect American farmers and industry, whether the Prohibition of most production, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, and whether Smith, as a Roman Catholic, would be, as president, beholden to the Pope, LIFE (yes, it was capitalized, as was its competitor, TIME) magazine decided to mount a mock run for the highest office in the land by humorist Will Rogers, an immensely popular figure in American life.

A recent post here focused on the 12 October issue of LIFE with material by Rogers on his “Anti-Bunk Party” effort and platform, with the core element being the tongue-deeply-planted-in-cheek effort to cleanse the body politic of “bunk,” a word we hardly hear anymore, though this year’s Democratic Party nominee, Joseph Biden, favors another anachronism, “malarkey.” Both basically mean nonsense, though Rogers was able to use the pungent humor of satire in his crusade, whereas the 78-year old former vice-president, when he uses his term, merely comes across as, well, old.

In any case, this post is going to be divided into two parts, because the featured artifact from the museum’s holdings, the 2 November 1928 edition of LIFE, appearing four days before the election, is filled to the gills with plenty of great material pertaining to the election. This includes Rogers’ “last appeal” to voters; the editors’ “Final Anti-Bunk Bulletin;” a decidedly unscientific straw poll by another widely known humorist, Robert Benchley; plenty of other editorials and insights; and, importantly, several fantastic election-related cartoons.

Stamped on the front cover and on the bottom of each page in the 44-page issue is the admonition to “VOTE FOR ROGERS / VOTE FOR SMITH / VOTE FOR HOOVER / BUT — VOTE!” which is certainly echoed in plenty of ads, commercials and other outlets in this year’s campaign, which has resulted in what looks to be the highest voter turnout in recent presidential election history. Yet, the magazine definitely used dark humor throughout in its coverage of the election, starting with a feature editorial by Elmer Davis that began with the statement, “next Wednesday morning the worst will be known, and if you believe what you hear it is going to be very bad indeed, whoever wins.”

The piece continued that “a Democratic Senator says that civilization will stand still if Hoover is elected; and a Republican educator says that if Hoover is not elected it will be not only a national calamity but a world tragedy.” It added that “every four years for a century past this republic has been in imminent and deadly peril on the first Monday in November, but somehow the end of the week always finds it carrying on about as usual.” While 2020 is an anomaly and an aberration for several major reasons, this assertion does remind us of the bubble in which we immerse ourselves in heated presidential campaigns.

Pressing on, Davis observed that Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon “says that the Republicans ought to be continued in power because our highways are crowded with automobiles” while “the Democrats, presumably, want to go back to the horse and buggy,” this referring to whether American prosperity, at least from the general perspective, was the best argument for the Grand Old Party to continue its dominance of the national electoral landscape during the Roaring Twenties. He noted that, from the way Mellon couched the situation, “one gathers that it is due solely to the Republican party that ten years have elapsed since the war,” but that “if the Democrats had remained in office the sun and moon would have stood still,” as if the secretary’s predecessors had not “began the process of debt reduction [after World War I] which Mr. Mellon has so ably carried on.”

Alas, Davis went on, “thanks to Harding and Coolidge the earth again spins around on its axis and revolves around the sun, the procession of the equinoxes goes on once more; winter and summer, day and night, seedtime and harvest, shall not fail so long as the Grand Old Party has the jobs.” With the Republican argument being so framed, “whatever you think the nation needs, Hoover is going to give it.” He would not only continue Prohibition, he would also abolish it. The Commerce secretary “is the firmest foe of intolerance and our one sole bulwark against the temporal power of the Pope.” Referring to his bland campaign style, Davis added that “anything can be said for Hoover, and practically everything has been said for him, because he says nothing for himself,” letting advisers and supporters do the heavy campaign lifting.

While the Republican strategy of having Hoover say as little as possible, other than to talk of tariffs and the value of the American home while he “squats behind the dollar,” about what he would do as president seemed to be an “assumption that the public neither knows nor cares to know anything about the problems of the time,” the magazine observed that “Al Smith has told the people what he thinks about every problem of immediate urgency; what he thinks ought to be done about it, and what he will try to do about it.” For Davis, however, the Hoover campaigning strategy “may be the calculated policy of a man who honestly despises the public and believes that we have no right to know what he means to do until he is ready to do it.

Moreover, he averred that “a President cannot get things done unless he can make the people see what he wants to do and why he wants to do it,” something Davis claimed Smith was successful in doing as New York’s chief executive. He continued that “one may guess that Hoover’s silence springs from self-sufficiency rather than cowardice, because after all it takes some courage to say nothing for fear of offending somebody” but that he “has such faith in himself that he thinks people must vote for him whether they know anything about him or not.” Americans, stated Davis, “are a nation of gamblers after all” including buying stock on margin without knowing anything about the company and its products, and “so long as nothing is known, everything may be expected.”

In another editorial with Henry Suydam’s “The Political Front” feature, with a subheading of “Election Day,” he offered that “large numbers of citizens, regarding the candidates for President, see two men who are not there.” His point was that the hero of wartime relief, Hoover, and the Tammany Hall golden boy, Al Smith, were, in 1928, “non-existent figures.” Moreover, “Mr. Hoover is ending up where Mr. Smith began—as a politician; while Mr. Smith has come to full size in a field larger than politics—the technique and use of government for definite social and economic ends.”

Suydam went on to suggest that Hoover’s status was receding while that of his rival was on the ascendant, because the Commerce secretary’s “campaign has been an infinite caution, based upon the assumption that he could not fail to win.” The Republican’s strategy was “suggestive of an attitude of arrogance and contempt toward the true spirit of representative government” through “his opaque and infrequent recitations from manuscript.” Hoover was, the argument posited, shying away from debate, which led “Mr. Smith to force the argument on his opponent in the hope of engaging him in combat.”

Yet, the editorialist observed, “had the Democratic candidate been a Protestant, I imagine Mr. Hoover would have found it expedient to fight” but “the country can come to a rough judgment on the effect of religion in our politics,” with Suydam adding “the last four months have not been amusing.” In fact, he went on “the unhappiest parts of Mr. Hoover’s campaign” have been those supporters who comprised “the ghosts of Prohibitionists, preachers and prejudice-mongers [who] will parade down the pages of our histories in his path.” If Hoover was to win, “the problem of religious disqualification remains,” though if vanquished by his rival, it would show that the nation was tolerant of a Catholic as chief executive.

Suydam claimed that a Hoover win was not inevitable and that “the Governor is a man who improves on acquaintance” and that Smith “has tried, within the inescapable limitations of politics, to expose his full mind to public examination.” If the Democrat had succeeded in exciting “the imagination of his fellow-citizens,” it would be known soon enough, so the writer urged his readers “now go and vote.” Suydam, however, was “a disenfranchised citizen of the District of Columbia, whose government bids him not to both about Presidents,” so he wished voting citizens luck on the day of the election.

In his “The Religious Issues,” E.S. Martin noted that “there are two religious issues in the campaign, one Catholic, one Methodist” and observed that “to object to Alfred Smith because he is a Catholic is widely held to be unconstitutional.” While Smith, of course, “protests against anybody’s saying he won’t vote for him because he is a Catholic,” Hoover “holds up his hands in horror at the idea of anti-Catholic activities favoring his election.” Martin, however, went on to suggest that the problem with Methodists wasn’t just that many of them were against Catholics but “that they are so violently anti-rum and so terrible committed to regulating people’s habits and manner of life.” He wondered what would be thought of Catholics if they were of like mind.

After talking about the origins of Methodism and Quakerism through the teachings of John Wesley and George Fox, as well as the Paulist origins of Catholicism, Martin stated that “one great virtue the Methoidists have—they stand up to discussion and don’t mind criticism” while Catholics “like neither; they don’t wish to discus; they resent it very much if anybody finds fault with them.” He speculated this is why so many Americans were concerned about the latter and not about the former. Strikingly, he concluded with “how is it going to be with the Mormons?” and “what are they going to do?” and asked “will it be catch-as-catch can with them as it is with the Methodists, or will they feel that nobody’s religion should be discussed in public?” This is very interesting given much of the discussion surrounding Mitt Romney’s failed presidential run in 2012.

Heman Fay, Jr.’s contribution concerned his unnamed newspaper and claims that it favored Hoover over Smith in election coverage. He answered that, while he did support the Republican, “the American people are fortunate indeed in having to choose between two such splendid public servants.” Fay noted that his paper carried material on claims that Smith had a “connection wit a Kidnaping Ring which makes a specialty of carrying off little boys” [doesn’t this sound like something of a QAnon analog?], about a Methodist minister’s assertion that a Smith presidency would mean “the Vatican will be moved from Rome into the buildings now occupied by the Smithsonian Institution at Washington,” that a Baptist minister exclaimed that Smith would seek “a religious war upon Mexico” and, finally, that he would “turn all our colleges into parochial schools.”

As for the Republican, Fay reported that there were only two items about Hoover: one involving his rescue of a starving dog and the other about “his magnificent, self-sacrificing labors in Belgium” in the war and postwar years. Because, he concluded, items about Smith took up about twice as much space as that about Hoover, this meant that he and his sheet were not playing favorites and “this paper believes that the presidential campaign can be decided on the merits of the candidates, without recourse to underhand tactics or foreign domination!”

We end this first part of the post with another column from the fabulously named Tupper Greenwald on “What to Remember When You Go to the Polls: As Advised by Spokesmen of Both Parties.” First, he observed from the Democratic point of view, “remember that the President cannot make laws and that therefore Mr. Smith will be powerless to bring about modification of” Prohibition. He then added the Republican talking point “Mr. Smith favors drastic revision of the laws restricting immigration [the nation’s first widespread legal quotas were introduced four years prior] and that therefore his election will result in legislation permitting the ingress of hordes of undesirable foreigners.”

As for Hoover, his opponents averred that he “stands for a high tariff wall to protect Big Business and consequently cannot help the farmer, for protection leads to monopoly and monopoly leads to high prices for manufactured articles.” On the other hand, “the Democratic party proposed no sweeping changes in legislation governing business; the tariff is not an issue in this campaign.

For the G.O.P., “Mr. Hoover is internationally-minded and cosmopolitan” with an enviable record in foreign issues, as well as “a home-loving man, a man whose heart is warmly attached to the old home at Westbranch [West Branch, Iowa, his hometown] and the old friends and neighbors.” Democrats, however, countered that “a vote for Al Smith is a vote against intolerance and prejudice,” though it was stated conversely that “without strict loyalty to the Democratic party the cause of white supremacy in our great Southern states is lost.”

Finally, Greenwald’s piece ended, the success of Hoover in the election “will mean the vindication of one of the most cherished of the principles upon which our forefathers builded this nation: the maintenance of strict divorce between Church and State,” while “every devout church member owes it to himself, to his fellow man, and to his God to go to the polls and cast his ballot against Satan, liquor, and Smith . . .”

Tomorrow, this year’s election day (though this has really been an election season with our extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic leading to an unprecedented use of mail-in/absentee ballots), we’ll look to the humorous side of this issue of LIFE, including commentary from Benchley, the magazine’s editors, and, of course, Rogers.

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