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.
Radio industry experts estimated that the heated campaign increased sales of radios by more than 3 million in 1928 and that radio in turn helped to swell the ranks of registered voters. On election eve, both candidates gave final speeches to nationwide radio audiences. Hoover reiterated that his party was on the verge of ending poverty and pledged to work to unite America. Smith reassured voters that he was beholden to no man or interest group, save for the American people. In the end, Hoover, the man who had never held elected office but had more purely executive experience than any president before or since, won handily. Smith's message that the country needed a change was drowned out by the din of personal destruction.
Four years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, radio's master orator, overcame Hoover and the Republican attack that he was inexperienced by offering change in the form of a New Deal, which he expressed in catchy sound bites that people easily grasped: "I am waging a war in this campaign against the 'four horsemen' of Republican leadership—the horsemen of Destruction, Delay, Deceit, and Despair."
We are 80 years removed from the Hoover/Smith battle and the reach and speed of media have evolved, as has the scope of the issues we face. Yet when we look back at how media have been used to tear down candidates, it is striking how little has actually changed. Commenting in October 1928 on radio's value as a campaign tool, Andrew White, president of the CBS Radio Network, said: "The radio audience does not tune in for hokum. Radio demands thought. Radio has made sincerity a keynote in the campaign."
In 1928, it may have seemed that the electronic media would force campaigns to rise above the muck to debate real issues, that radio and its electronic descendants might raise the level of political dialogue. What happened was that the media are now masterfully manipulated by the messengers.The once great opportunity for electronic media to become the modern town hall meeting has been squandered, because what the audience craved then, and craves even more now, is not political debate but entertainment in the form of political theater.
Anthony Rudel is author of Hello, Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio (Harcourt Books).