that all three presidential debates have been held, we look back at the '08
debates ... the 1908 presidential debates. That was the election that
introduced a first-time campaign strategy: recorded speeches from the
candidates that voters could listen to in the comfort of their homes or at
penny arcades. A new CD, Debate '08, features more than 40 minutes of
such audio from Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan and Republican
William Howard Taft. Jeff Bossert reports.
William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft never actually debated one
another. But in 1908, one nickelodeon operator in New York City at least tried
to give that illusion, with the help of two mannequins and wax cylinder
a phonograph beside the mannequin of Bryan, one of the most popular speakers in
U.S. history, people could hear his vision for the nation:
can conceive of a national destiny surpassing the glories of the present and
the past... a destiny which meets the responsibilities of today and measures up
to the possibilities of the future ... behold a republic resting securely upon
the foundation stone quarried by revolutionary patriots, from the mountain of
eternal truth, a republic applying in practice and proclaiming to the world the
self-evident propositions that all men are created equal …"
him, another phonograph played the voice of his opponent, Taft, the candidate
who went on to win the election:
the strength of the Republican cause in the campaign at hand is in the fact
that we represent policies essential to the reform of known abuses, to the
continuance of liberty and true prosperity, and that we are determined as our
platform unequivocally declares to maintain them and carry them on. For more
than 10 years this country passed through an epoch of material development far
beyond any that ever occurred in the world before…"
Those speeches are among 22 on Debate '08, a new CD put out by Archeophone
Records. The Illinois-based
label specializes in reviving recordings made between the late 1880s and early
1920s and packaging them with extensive booklets, putting them in historical
earliest Edison wax cylinders in the 1890s were primarily used to record music,
but companies quickly began to explore other options. When William Jennings
Bryan embarked on his first run for the White House in 1896 against William
McKinley, the recording industry decided to play a role in the race. But the
cylinders of speeches it sold to the public weren't by the candidates – they
were recorded by actors, complete with staged cheering and applause.
Feaster, an Indiana University professor of folklore who wrote the CD's album
notes, explains that listeners at the time were more concerned with
entertainment than politics.
wasn't really that they were fooling anybody passing off speeches that were
actually done by actors that are supposed to be McKinley or some other
candidate," Feaster says. "It was really more about giving people a
particular kind of experience. You could sort of imagine that you were there
listening to a speech."
compares it to watching a movie or a historical re-enactment today.
first, there were technical limits to making a wax cylinder recording.
Phonograph companies had yet to perfect a way of copying them, meaning
musicians and voice actors had to spend hours in front of the device making
duplicates – something presidential candidates would hardly have time to do.
The recordings were again "faked" in 1900, when President McKinley
faced Bryan for a second time.
But eight years later, when Bryan again led the Democratic ticket and recorded
his own speeches, copies of the cylinders could be made fairly easily. So
William Howard Taft finally agreed to do the same thing to avoid any perceived
advantage by his opponent.
his view of the proposal to insure bank deposits during the 1908 campaign,
Bryan said, "There is a growing sentiment in favor of legislation which
will guarantee depositors by requiring all banks to stand back of each bank.
The government requires security for its deposits, why should not the
individual depositor be protected?"
Taft answered that question in a speech titled "Enforced Insurance of Bank
proposition is to tax the honest and prudent banker to make up for the
dishonesty and imprudence of others. No one can foresee the burden, which under
this system would be imposed upon the sound and conservative bankers of the
country by this obligation to make good the losses caused by the reckless,
speculative and dishonest men who would be enabled to secure deposits under
such a system on the faith of the proposed insurance."
Giovannoni, an audio historian and one of the CD's producers, notes that issues
like international affairs and financial security are still being debated by
presidential candidates 100 years later.
the Republican, is saying, 'Look, you force the banks to pay insurance on their
deposits, and what you're gonna get is lawlessness. You'll have a lot of
bankers speculating with money, and they don't have anything to lose. Because
if they lose, they have an insurance fund that will pay their depositors. The
government will step in – you know, that's not what the Republican Party wants
to see,'" Giovannoni says.
the current banking crisis in mind, he adds, "That's a pretty damn
interesting story right now!"
Other speeches on the CD deal with "The Philippines," "The
Rights of Labor," "The Popular Election of Senators" and
"Rights and Progress of the Negro."
cylinders cost a modest 35 cents each in 1908, the equivalent of $8 today.
While many people would gather in one home to listen to them, Patrick Feaster
says it appears they were still caught up in the novelty of the recordings and
not so influenced by the message.
generally assume they did not sell well, because there just aren't many copies
of them around today," he says. "And a record that sold really well,
you would expect to turn up in antique shops and the like."
suggests it's also possible people just threw them away after the election as
out of date. He says the recordings' effect on the campaign remains a bit of a
mystery. "Nobody, as far as I know, has really come up with a good answer
to that one."
candidate's words do have an impact, and today, it's hard to imagine a
presidential campaign without recorded speeches, commercials… and debates.