This year's race for the presidency marks the 80th anniversary of the first national campaign dominated by electronic media. In 1928, radio networks had newly and broadly changed the dynamics of politics: Candidates were stars, their speeches were drafted to be broadcast, and campaigns used the electronic media to attack and counterattack.
Today, in addition to radio, we are inundated by TV, 24/7 cable news, and the ubiquitous Internet, with its power to reach millions instantly. But though the media have changed, the 2008 battle is beginning to look a lot like 1928. The question is: Is Senator Obama like Gov. Al Smith, a new kind of candidate who can't overcome the attacks, or will he, the modern candidate who texted his VP pick to supporters, be able to use electronic media to get America to focus on ideas and not biography?
It seems hard to believe, but in 1928, radio was not only the new but the only electronic medium; it was most families' primary source of entertainment, just as later they would turn to television, and then the computer. It was also the primary source of political news. But whereas today the complex issues are boiled down to 15-second sound bites, in 1928, Americans welcomed political oratory and listened to hourlong speeches. Radio was still so new that those talks were entertaining.
Unlike today's stage-managed galas, the 1928 Republican convention included five endless nominating speeches for five candidates—interspersed with raucous outbursts of shouting, ringing cowbells, and banging tin pans that would last more than 20 minutes. It may have been exciting in the convention hall, but it was lousy radio.
Two weeks later, the Democrats showed they had learned from their opponents: Al Smith was nominated on the first ballot in a highly organized, civil manner. Then, two months later, when their parties officially notified them of the nominations, Herbert Hoover and Smith aired speeches over more than 100 radio stations—reaching millions, the largest audiences assembled to that time.
While there were important issues in 1928, including Prohibition, a struggling farm economy, welfare and labor reforms, and equal rights for women, the campaign deteriorated into a struggle over cultural and political issues. Both candidates became capable, though different, radio orators. Hoover was stiff and dealt with subjects in a professorial, detailed manner. Speaking about rising costs, for example, he explained that "taking this standard we shall see that real wages at the height of the war inflation were about 30 percent over 1913." Not exactly a great sound bite.
Conversely, Smith used drama and humor to make his case to the American people. When asked about the Republican claim of having "put a chicken in every pot," Smith retorted, "A man who invents a lie like that, what must be his estimation of the average intelligence of the American people?" One radio critic wrote, "Radio transmits [Smith's] magnetic personality whereas it even further chills Hoover's delivery of cold facts."
As the campaign raced on, issues faded; the Democrats repeatedly and overtly linked Hoover to the scandals and policies of the Harding/Coolidge administration. In a line that could be lifted directly from the 2008 campaign, Smith charged Hoover with having surrogates create a smoke screen "behind which they hope to hide the record of the last seven and a half years."
The Republicans' radio attacks were sharper and focused primarily on three subjects: the Democrats' desires to raise taxes, moral weakness, and Smith's religion. He was, after all, something never before encountered in national politics—a Catholic—and therefore suspect. Rumors spread that as president, Smith would be subject to the pope's dictates. Republicans warned that a Smith presidency would lead to socialism. In another attack seemingly lifted from today's methods, Hoover charged the Democrats with trying to solve America's problems by increasing the size of government: "In effect they abandon the tenets of their own party and turn to state Socialism as a solution."
The personal attacks on Smith and his religion came not directly from Hoover but from outside organizations—the predecessor of today's Swift Boaters. On WHAP—the call letters stood for We Hold America Protestant—owned by the Defenders of Truth Society, the attacks on Smith's religion were frequent and the society refused him the chance to respond on its station, claiming the right to air religious propaganda was protected under the 1927 Radio Act, legislation Hoover as commerce secretary had championed.