“This Is No Sham Battle”: Coverage of the Presidential Election in TIME Magazine, 5 November 1928, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we crawl closer to the calling of the contest in this year’s most unusual of presidential elections, we also bring to an end a series of posts here on past campaigns for the office of the nation’s chief executive, most focused on the 1928 election between Republican Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce, and Democrat Al Smith, the governor of New York, and we do this with the second of two parts of coverage by the weekly newsmagazine, TIME, in its edition of 5 November, the day prior to the election.

The first part focused on content in the lengthy “National Affairs” section and there is more to delver into from that part of the magazine, including portions subtitled “Campaigners.” For the Republicans, it was stated that “agitated either by fear of ‘over-confidence’ or by a great and visible insurgence of Smith strength, the G.O.P. sent speakers hither, thither and yon,” though, notably, not the candidate.


His running mate, Kansas Senator Charles Curtis, traveled through the midwest “reciting about the Tariff and Prosperity, Prosperity and the Tariff, the Tariff and Prosperity.” It was reported that Curtis was challenged to a debate in Des Moines, where he was appearing on 1 November, by a farmer, A.J. Livingston, who heckled the senator at a stump speech in September, upon which Curtis told him “I guess you’re too damn dumb to understand.” This is not unlike an angry retort launched by this year’s Democratic candidate Joseph Biden at an Iowa event last December, calling a man (who told media outlets he’d still vote for Biden) who accused the former vice-president of getting his son, Hunter, a job with Ukrainian gas company Burisma in order for access to the Obama Administration, “a damn liar.”

Meanwhile, Charles Evans Hughes, former New York governor and United States Supreme Court justice, who resigned to mount a failed campaign for president in 1916, but then served as Secretary of State under presidents Harding and Coolidge, took to the road, also in the midwest, to stump for Hoover. He spent much time in Missouri, described by TIME as “Republican in and about wet, German-populated St. Louis,” where brewer August Busch was promoting Smith because of Prohibition, and “Democratic in the dry, farming western reaches” and which had 18 electoral votes.

At St. Joseph, near Kansas City, in the west, Hughes promoted Hoover’s record as Commerce secretary, but acknowledged the damage done by the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved Los Angeles oil magnate Edward L. Doheny and east coast oilman Harry Sinclair concerning bribes for non-bid leases of government reserves in Wyoming and California. He told supporters that “the Republican Party was betrayed in its own house” but said that, when it came down to honesty, there was no contest between Hoover and Smith. Moreover, the Democrats, Hughes continued, were “a part of abandoned issues,” while Smith’s position of farm relief was “political quackery” and his take on Prohibition a “sham battle.” Later, Hughes traveled to Buffalo to ramp up claims that Smith and the Democrats promoted “socialism,” another 2020 trope trotted out again by Republicans against their rivals.


William Borah, who wielded extraordinary power despite representing the sparsely populated state of Idaho, “had been the biggest Republican gun up to entry of Campaigner Hughes and he was second on the effort to save Missouri.” Borah went there from Texas, where he castigated Smith’s roots in New York City and its Tammany Hall machine, as well as attacked the Democrat’s Prohibition positions. In Missouri, the senator played up the prosperity line, while TIME speculated that Borah’s stumping would place him in Hoover’s good graces if elected and that “he would be the Senate’s commanding figure and his commands would have to be listened to at the White House.” Of particular interest to Borah in rural Idaho was the farming issue and it was reported that, because of his pressure on the nominee for a special session of Congress for spring 1929 to deal with the problem, “Nominee Hoover finally issued a guarded promise for the special session.”

Finally, Alanson B. Houghton, former ambassador to the United Kingdom and Germany, was sent by Hoover to St. Louis to plead specifically to the German-American population there and remind them of Hoover’s heroic work feeding the starving masses of Germany after the world war, doing so “to counteract a political canard that Mr. Hoover had been unkind to Germans.” Houghton’s next stop was to be in Milwaukee, another city with a very large German-American contingent. There were brief references to other Hoover surrogates out on the trail, including Assistant United States Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a longtime resident of Temple City, founded by the Homestead’s owner during the Twenties, Walter P. Temple, who barnstormed through West Virginia, Tennessee, Minnesota, South Dakota and California.

For Democrats, the list of campaigners was decidedly smaller and included Smith’s running mate, Arkansas Senator and the minority leader for his party in that body Joseph T. Robinson. Robinson was in the Pacific Northwest, looking to seize the narrative about socialism and redirect it to the progressivism that was so popular in the previous decade, criticizing Hoover for using the label and which showed “his utter lack of sympathy for the desire of farmers to enjoy prosperity.”


James M. Cox, who lost to Harding in the 1920 election, spoke in Nashville and read quotes from Borah’s speeches attacking Hoover on the Senator floor in 1919. Cox accused the G.O.P. of “creating and maintaining a bitter sectional feeling in the northern states” and, in 1928, they were looking to do the same in the South as “the bearer southward of the Judas kiss” courtesy of Borah’s stumping in that part of the nation. With regard to Prohibition, Cox averred that, in his state of Ohio, “every man or woman who wants a drink can get it” and that this was true everywhere else, too. He added “Mr. Hoover knows it. Mr. Coolidge knows it. And so does Governor Smith. The difference is that Governor Smith frankly tells the truth about it.” Cox asked, “why can’t we be perfectly honest and candid and frank with each other on this subject?” and stated that former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were among Republicans who argued against Prohibition.

John W. Davis, who was easily vanquished by Coolidge in the 1924 campaign, “pleaded with Kentucky to come back to the [Democratic] fold,” but more attention seems to have been attracted by his “surprising, brown-derbied travelling companion,” baseball superstar “Babe” Ruth. Ruth, however, hardly an experienced political campaigner, mentioned, while speechifying in rural areas of the state that Smith was instrumental in fighting for Sunday baseball games, putting frowns on Democratic operatives. It was also related that the hefty “Sultan of Swat” was in Louisville when “he caused excitement when his burly frame crushed the chair in which he was sitting on the platform.”

Maryland’s Governor Albert C. Ritchie, who was fighting for reelection, headed up to Camden, New Jersey to put in his pitch for Smith and told a crowd that the Hoover is “a cold, silent individual who has refrained from discussing the issues of the campaign because he considers the average voter a boob.” Moving on to the Bronx borough of Smith’s hometown, Ritchie added “this anti-Catholic crusade may or may not be serious so far as Smith’s election is concerned but it is vitally serious itself . . . once started, no man can tell its end.” The governor continued that “intolerance breed intolerance, just as hate breed hate and invites revenge.” Finally, Ritchie invoked (gasp!) history by noting that “perhaps the most insidious and uncontrollable emotion that can sweep people off their feet” was this level of bias.


Elsewhere in the “National Affairs” section is a short piece titled “Snubbed?” and which concerned a remarkable incident in which Smith’s wife, Katie, was invited to the the guest of honor at a luncheon hosted by the New York City Federation of Women’s Clubs, Inc. After its president, Cora B. Thomas, contacted Eleanor Roosevelt, whose husband was Franklin, then the Democratic candidate to replace Smith as the state’s governor and the future president, to see that Katie Smith received the invitation. Just afterward, however, Thomas wrote Eleanor Roosevelt to say: “please accept this as an official recall of the invitation.”

Nothing was said by the federation as to why this happened, but TIME observed that the organization “existed first as a non-partisan organization,” although “in the intensity of this campaign it has developed a pronounced Republican appearance.” Thomas, though, was a Democrat and, even though Belle de Rivera, the group’s 84-year old founder asked that the matter be closed, in deference to her, the magazine ended by noting that Mrs. Smith was in a position such that “in the course of that stupendous sally, so many women had cheered her [on the campaign trail] that she was now incapable of feeling snubbed.”

In the “Political Notes” subsection is a brief comment “Enter Evolution” in which is was noted the neither candidate “has mentioned the evolution theory during the campaign” and it was opined that “that is no proper issue for presidential nominees to discuss” as it was “outside their platforms and, besides, it might alienate vote[r]s.” Yet, it pointed out that Democratic Henry Steagall, a member of the House from Alabama, was quoted as noting that Hoover believed in evolution, so it was “strange that orthodox ministers could vote for a man who believes in the evolution theory.”


George W. Olvany, considered the informal leader of Tammany Hall, the New York City political society which became synonymous with the excesses of machine politics, was also quoted extensively from an article published in Scribner’s Magazine. Olvany claimed that Smith “from present indications, will receive a clear majority of both the popular and electoral votes to be cast this fall.” He added that the old reputation of Tammany as a corrupt machine had changed, stating “the present-day Tammany has advocated election reforms, fought for woman suffrage, enacted the most progressive social-service and public-welfare laws in the world” and more. He quoted the well-known historian, Charles A. Beard, who wrote approvingly of the organization and its social services work.

The “Sons & Daughters” section discussed how the children of the candidates participated in the campaigning for their fathers, with 21-year old Arthur Smith saying “I am the luckiest boy in the world to receive my first vote in time to cast it for the man I have the honor to call father.” While Hoover’s son, Herbert, Jr. and Alan traveled with him on campaign train trips, they did not make speeches. James Roosevelt, a junior at Harvard (Thomas W. Temple II, incidentally, was in the final of three years of study at Harvard Law School at the time and was a Smith supporter), was making speeches for “the Brown Derby” at night events.

Then there were the children of other notable political figures, such as Richard Cleveland, son of the late 19th century president Grover Cleveland, who lived in Baltimore and stumped for Smith in that area and even claimed that the first words spoken by his year-old son, Thomas, were not “mama” or “papa” or suchlike, but, rather, “Al Smith.” Genevieve Clark Thompson, the daughter of the late powerful Speaker of the House James B. “Champ” Clark of Missouri had a zinger in her speech for Smith in that state: “if the Pope wanted the United States, he would have bought it when Fall and Daugherty had it for sale” during the Teapot Dome scandal. It’s worth pointing out that a key figure, Edward Doheny of Los Angeles, was a devout Catholic.


There was also the interesting case of Senator George Norris of Nebraska, who served for thirty years and wielded immense power, including as chair of the judiciary committee (a position now held by Lindsey Graham). Though a Republican, Norris was quite progressive and routinely disagreed with presidents Harding and Coolidge and threw his support behind Smith in 1928, despite their differences on Prohibition, though they also agreed about farm relief and about the damage done by Teapot Dome.

Norris was a key figure in the hydroelectric power issue then growing in importance and “declared himself a Smith man and made the power trust [of powerful electric and gas firms] a campaign monster,” calling it “a gigantic octopus . . . with its slimy fingers it reaches into every community and levies its tribute upon every fireside.” Norris went on to support Roosevelt in 1932 and became a pivotal figure in New Deal programs, including the very important Tennessee Valley Authority.” He became an independent in his last term from 1936-1942, but, in his early eighties, he was defeated for reelection. Notably, his wife, told reporters in 1928 “I am not following George in all this. I am not going to vote for Smith . . . and I am not going to vote for Hoover, either” as “I have always been a dry.”


There is also an interesting letter to the editor from Mary Burchard Pryor of Worcester, Massachusetts, who wrote to say “I cannot condone in silence the reprinting on your letter page of a scurrilous anti-Catholic campaign verse, directly under a letter from a Catholic Sister [nun] who cancels her subscription in protest against your original printing of this doggerel.” She followed with something that takes on resonance with current affairs in Europe, offering that “if the Presidency of the United States were being contested by a Buddhist and a Mohammedan [Muslim], I should wish TIME to print no shocking, versified allusion to the sacred ‘Beard of the Prophet.’ By so doing you would merely cause unnecessary pain to pious devotees of Islam.” Pryor ended by pleading that “compassion and consideration should always be shown to those who are still religious” even as she offered “I like to pretend that I have lost all contact with religion, and then sometimes I wondered.”

The magazine’s editors were compelled to answer at length, stating strangely at first that “TIME assumes that subscribers who request cancellation do not thereafter peek,” which seems a thinly veiled slap at the nun who revoked her subscription. It claimed that, with Pryor’s interesting hypothetical, “TIME would observe due reverence in mentioning ‘The Beard of the Prophet.’ But if hundreds of Buddhist verses ridiculing the ‘Beard’ should appear, in such scurrilous myriads as to violently affect the campaign, then TIME would print a very few significant specimens of such doggerel.” If such “were of a self-evidently odious and detestable nature,” the magazine would want the Muslims and Buddhists “to join with TIME in holding them up to general odium and detestation.”


The magazine then quoted from the Republican-leaning New York Sun, whose George Van Slyke, political correspondent, stated “the religionists have thrown off all restraints in the last month and are working openly against Smith. The State is flooded with the anti-Catholic literature . . . all the stuff is much the same . . . [and] holds out he most amazing threats of devastation and disaster which will come to the nation if the Pope wins control of the Government . . . and contains the most vicious and lurid attacks on the Governor, assailing him in the most vile language.” This seemed to be a defense, along with its quote in the prior paragraph alluding, presumably, to free speech, of the magazine’s printing of the anti-Catholic verse which so offended Pryor.

As a postscript, included here is a scan of an advertisement by the Industrial Department of the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce concerning how “Almost Over Night Los Angeles County Becomes America’s Second Tire Industry Center” after Akron, Ohio. With the major manufacturers of Samson [where the distinctive Citadel is in the City of Commerce], Goodyear, Goodrich and Firestone recently opening major plants, the chamber touted such benefits as low production costs, ideal working conditions, low plant costs, a major and growing western market, excellent transportation, inexpensive water and electricity and, finally, “freedom from labor troubles,” meaning that Los Angeles and its environs were largely “open shop” without unions. The ad reflects how important the city and region became during the first three decades of the 20th century.


Finally, as we await the final counts of the 2020 campaign in four battleground states to determine whether Democrat Joseph Biden, in his third bid for the White House, will win this extraordinary election, looking back to 1928 reminds us that controversy and hotly contested presidential contests are nearly always the case, even as conditions, circumstances and methods change. Hoover cruised to an easy win, the third straight for the G.O.P., but within a year came the first stages of the Great Depression, leading to a humbling reckoning for an America that largely believed itself invincible and on an unstoppable path of prosperity.

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks Paul.
    I find all of your blogs very interesting.
    This one has a local Whittier connection. As you probably know, Lou Henry Hoover, lived in Whittier when a young girl.
    There is an elementary school on Alta Ave in Whittier named for her.
    Thanks for all your diligent work.

    Charles Lawrence

  2. Hi Charles, thanks for the comment and I remember thinking as I put one of those election-related posts together that it should be mentioned that Lou Henry lived in Whittier and I simply forgot! I appreciate your raising that point.

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