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New CD Features Debates from '08 Campaign: Bryan vs. Taft

  • Jeff Bossert

Now 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 recordings.

From 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:

"I 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 …"

Beside him, another phonograph played the voice of his opponent, Taft, the candidate who went on to win the election:

"Gentlemen, 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 context.

The 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.

Patrick 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.

"It 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."

He compares it to watching a movie or a historical re-enactment today.

At 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.

Presenting 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 Deposits":

"The 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."

David 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.

"Taft, 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.

With 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."

The 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.

"We 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."

Feaster 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."

But a candidate's words do have an impact, and today, it's hard to imagine a presidential campaign without recorded speeches, commercials… and debates.

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