by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we await the results (and when who knows?) of this year’s extraordinary presidential campaign, this is the second part of a post on the coverage in the 2 November edition of LIFE magazine of the 1928 election between Democrat Al Smith, the governor of New York, and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, standard-bearer of the Republican Party, which dominated national electoral politics in America during the Twenties.
Last night’s first part focused on the more serious elements of the publication’s review of the campaign, but LIFE emphasized four key areas at the time: News, Personalities, Sport, and Amusement. So, tonight, we’ll home in on the latter of the quartet, particularly the mock campaign sponsored by the magazine of renowned humorist Will Rogers. Anticipating later efforts by the likes of Pat Paulsen (1968) and Stephen Colbert (2016,) Rogers “ran” for office under the auspices of the “Anti-Bunk Party,” the word “bunk” being a popular term for “nonsense.”
The 12 October 1928 edition of LIFE was highlighted in this blog a few weeks back, including aspects of the Rogers campaign, while tonight includes his concluding essay, but takes in other comedic observations made in the pages of the magazine. For example, Robert Benchley (1889-1945), was another popular figure in humor, with successful stints as a columnist in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, as well as his theatre reviews in LIFE, and, about the time his short essay appeared in this issue, he was making his debut in the film industry, in which he scored some notable successes in the Thirties, including short satirical works like 1935’s How to Sleep.
Benchley’s contribution here is “No Results Whatever in Our Own Straw Vote,” a lampoon of a popular means of gauging public opinion through an unofficial vote. You quickly get a sense of his style when he opened with the observation that, when it came to his straw vote for the election “we must bear two things in mind: (1) that Hoover is the Republican candidate and Smith the Democratic, and (2) that red photographs black.” Any other little things that you can remember will help, too.”
He continued that he and his fellows canvassed the entire country of “twenty million odd voters (some of the odder than others, but all pretty bad)” and “we are able to tabulate some trends in popular sentiment and perhaps even make a graph (O Lord! keep us from making a joke about Graph Zeppelin!).” This led, Benchley continued, to a discussion of the trio of main issues in the race: Prohibition, relief for farmers, and hydroelectric power. He noted “it was found that the average voter likes Prohibition best because he knows what the word means.” It wasn’t as if the other two were not liked, but that they were confused “with the Gold Standard and Nullification, which aren’t issues at all in this election,” although all “are more or less grouped in his mind under the general head of ‘The Tariff,’ which makes it easier to remember.
As for Prohibition, the humorist stated, “your American is a docile soul and craves paternalism; and the thought that a benevolent government is watching over him and protecting him” from the evils of drink (Benchley, once a staunch teetotaler died from the effects of alcoholism) was worth the support of the concept. He then noted that this was the first time he’d written on the subject and had hoped he would “be known as the only hackwriter in America who had not waxed satirical on that subject.” He blamed that on the straw vote.
As to the results of the poll for the contest involving Hoover, Smith and Rogers, Benchley declared “the chances favor the election of Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate” whose 1928 campaign was the first of a half-dozen through 1948 for the Presbyterian minister and democratic socialist, who received nearly 200,000 votes when he ran in New York for the United States Senate in 1934. It was added that “Mr. Rogers’ promise to resign immediately if elected has made it probably that he will be offered the Honorary Presidency and that Mr. Thomas will receive the actual votes of the people.”
To explain this calculation, Benchley wrote that there were 12 million voters who “found that Hoover wouldn’t change things if he were elected” while 12,500,000 believed the same for Smith. There were 24,500,000, though, who wanted change and “the only candidate who can be counted on to change things (aside from Mr. Rogers) is the Socialist candidate.” All that was left, then, “to insure his election is to find out where he is.”
With that, the humorist’s straw vote was completed and he noted “we may have had our little differences of opinion, but it has all been good-natured and if we never see any of you again it will be all right with us.” Before he completed his analysis, though, Benchley laid out a short table of the “Final Result of Straw Vote,” with:
Number of voters in the United States: Millions and millions.
Number of voters interviewed: Really only about six.
Result of canvas: Pains in the neck and occasional nausea.
Not voting: 6
Brook Branwade offered his own comedic take in his “The Campaign Manager Returns Home the Day After the Presidential Election” in which the fictional character goes on an extended monologue with his wife at his home as if he could not shut himself off from his programmed mode of campaigning. Here’s a sample:
“Well, well! Home again! How’s the little wife getting along? (Slap.) Just as conscientious, honest, straightforward, upright, just, loyal, truthfl, courageous, intelligent, honorable, brave, faithful, progressive, and working as hard for farm relief as ever, I suppose? (Slap.) Yessiree. What shall we elect for dinner tonight? I cast my vote for roast beef and raising pie . . . And how is the new cook doing her duty? Is she carrying out the platform as she promised? You know these cooks, darling. As long as they are campaigning, they put out a lot of hokum [read: bunk], but as soon as they get the office hog-tied, they start leasing Teapot Dome [referring to a major Harding Administration scandal involving Los Angeles oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny in the leasing of federal oil reserve lands without bids and involving bribery]. Well, we can always impeach her—that’s one good thing! (Slap.)
The centerfold, titled “The People’s Choice,” features caricatures by James Montgomery Flagg, best known for his iconic “I Want YOU for US Army” recruitment poster during the First World War showing Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer, and verses by Arthur Guiterman, a popular writer of comedic poems. For Smith, Guiterman wrote:
“One Fame’s Eternal Monolith
Engrave the Name of Alfred Smith,
Inserting, though it is not Vital,
‘Emanuel,’ his Middle Title . . .
Stiped Suits he wears and Nut-Brown Bowlers
With Pert Cigars betwixt his Molars;
And though an Opposition Camp
Denounces him as Wet or Damp,
He is, beyond all Doubts whatever,
An Able Statesman, keen and clever
As well as honest, frank and free.
(Oblige us, please, with ‘Tam-ma-nee!”)
In his versification about Hoover, Guiterman spun:
“From dry Key West to moist Vancouver
Resounds the Call for Herbert Hoover,
An Engineer of Note and Mark
Whose Second Given Name is Clark.
From Prairie Cornfields softly rippling
He came, a Middle Western Stripling,
To California’s Golden Coast,
Ordained to be its Pride and Boast. . .
In spite of Battle’s loud Percussions
He fed the Belgians, French and Russians,
The Germans, Poles and Serbs, I think,
And even got them Things to Drink . . .
No Petty Politics can blind him,
He calmly does the Task assigned him—
A moral Man, of stalwart Tissue,
Who balks at Naught (except an Issue.)
Finally, in his poem about the pseudo-candidate Rogers, comes this sample:
“The Nemesis of Artful Dodgers
Is Guillaume, Bill, or Wilhelm Rogers
Who natal Oklahoma still
Persists in hailing him as ‘Will.”
Upon the Scene, dispensing Wisecracks,
He came like Sunlight through the Sky’s Cracks . . .
Our Man, disdaining Compromise,
Is Wet to Wets and Dry to Drys.
His Program will not leave unheeded
What Anybody says is needed . . .
He promises a Weary Nation
A Fearless Bunk-Investigation,
And he will furnish proof that Quips
Are mightier far than Battleships.”
In its “Final Anti-Bunk Bulletin!” the editors intoned, tongue firmly planted in cheek, that “our party, the Anti-Bunk, and Our Candidate, the honorable Will Rogers, have had to fight against terrific and overwhelming odds all through this campaign. The entire political world has been lined up against us.” If it was merely a race between three equal entities, that would have been one things, “but the Republicans and Democrats have combined to suppress us, and to prevent our great message from reaching the voters.” This was “that Bunk is the supreme commodity in which both of their parties must deal, and that if were to eliminate Bunk, we should deprive them of their sole excuse for their existence.” It added that foreign nations, including Russia (officially, the Soviet Union), were watching the Anti-Bunk campaign with concern as “they don’t want the idea to spread to their countries.”
There were purported conspiracies to detail as “Our Candidate’s name has been kept off the ballot,” while rallies by radio were blunted by static “manufactured in a certain little house in Washington, D.C.” In East Milton, Massachusetts, it was claimed, a Rogers-For-President banner was taken down by the state militia. Despite these alleged nefarious actions, the magazine proclaimed “we still control the GREAT SILENT VOTE [a precursor perhaps to Nixon’s “Silent Majority?”]” and that constituency “is going to sweep the country on Election Day, and give our people a President who can be funny intentionally.”
The feature article, of course, belonged to Rogers and was titled “Our Candidate Is Not Optimistic” with a subheading of “The Trouble with Us Is We’re Too Far Ahead of Our Time with a Platform of No Bunk.” The comedian started off with “Well, this is the last appear I will make to voters” following this with “the chances are Hoover and Smith both will keep right on ‘Yapping’ right up to the minute that the boys go to cast their salable product. And of course the henchmen and Campaign managers will keep the treasury open as long as there is a vote left unpaid for.”
Acknowledging that “us Anti-Bunks may lose,” Rogers prognisticated that “Smith will be elected President of New York City, and Hoover will be elected President of New York State, just the same as Smith has always been elected Governor of New York City, while his opponent has always been elected Governor of all the rest of the State.” He added “don’t let ’em tell you Smith won’t get the South. He will.” That’s because “they are very religious down there, but that ‘love thy neighbor as thyself,” never was meant to apply to any neighbor that happened to be a Republican.” Moreover, “the old South would be right in the Democratic columns even if their Candidate was a ‘Mohamaden’ [Muslim] by religion.” Even Turks were not viewed as low by the Armenians, Rogers offered, “as the Republican is held by the southern Democrat.”
As to the Anti-Bunk movement, “we are a hundred years ahead of times” and he prophesied that “in the year 2028 the acceptance speeches will read, ‘I pledge myself if elected, to appoint a Committee to look into the condition of the farmer, to keep the tariff so that it will protect the most voters, and absolutely pledge myself to take the question of Prohibition right OUT of politics.” He went on to suggest, though, that 2028 was only a century hence, “so maby [sic] I was wrong when I said my platform was 100 years ahead of its time, I guess it’s a thousand years.”
Noting that he was the only candidate who avoided scandal in his politicking, Rogers proclaimed “if the election went to the one who conducted their campaign on the highest plane, the Anti-Bunk would win in a walk. Our party has placed Dignity above Showmanship, so the majority of people don’t even know I’m running.” Nothing, moreover, was said about of type of hat, his travel to foreign countries, or his religion and certainly “no attempt has been made to cash in on any Sex Appeal I may unconsciously possess.”
Consequently, the comedian concluded, “I may be defeated on next Tuesday, but if I am I can retire as a Gentleman, and NOT a politician.” Of course, on election day, Rogers declared victory and then immediately resigned. The actual vote was overwhelmingly in favor of Hoover, who continued the G.O.P.’s dominance in presidential politics for a third consecutive election, trouncing Smith by over six million votes and winning 58% percent of the tally while taking 40 of the 48 states (yes, Smith won the Deep South, capturing six states with only Rhode Island and Massachusetts in his column) and garnering 444 electoral college votes to only 87 for the Democrat.
As for our 2020 campaign, the polls officially closed in California just a few minutes ago and we’ll see when we’ll know the winner of the presidential campaign in this most unusual of elections. In any case, the “Anti-Bunk” spirit remains, though with different terminologies, despite Joseph Biden’s arcane use of “malarkey” as an analog to “bunk” and it does seem likely that 2028 won’t bring much change on that score. Does anyone want to forecast the future of presidential election “bunk” in 3028?