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It's time for another 'front porch' campaign

March 24, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

In the 1896 presidential campaign, candidate William McKinley and his strategists on the Republican Campaign Committee came up with a novel plan to win. There were, of course, some of the usual gimmicks like parades and signs, but the main attraction was on the front porch of McKinley's home in Canton, Ohio. McKinley was confined to very brief statements that were carefully edited to avoid offending anyone.

Small delegations of visitors were carried by train and arranged to give a picture of respectability. They were financed by the party and by Mark Hanna, a very wealthy industrialist and owner of newspapers.

Bluntly stated, McKinley was all but "bought and paid for" by Mark Hanna. Cartoonists made fun of the connection and portrayed McKinley bound by ropes and safely resting in the palm of a large hand under a sign, "A Man of Mark." All had one overreaching goal — no mishaps to foul the election.

There was good reason to be cautious. McKinley was no match as an orator against a spellbinder such as William Jennings Bryan who was known as "The Boy Orator from the Platte." Then, too, the memories of a verbal blunder in the 1884 presidential campaign were still vivid because it cost the Republicans the presidency. A supporter of James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate, asked a question about the Democratic Party. The supporter of Blaine replied that the Democratic Party was one of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion." Blaine made no public effort to disavow the opinion and became tarnished by association. It made good sense, therefore, to bridle the new candidate.

A look at several of the Republican politicians who are showing all of the signs of running for the presidency in 2012 gives compelling evidence that they can easily match the blunders of an earlier day and might repeat the "front porch" style of 1896. At the moment, the two most visible candidates are Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. Both pose problems. Neither would submit to the confinement of a porch. Also, they would make all of the verbal blunders and would not need an underling to speak out of turn.

Indeed, both Gingrich and Palin provide the news media with weekly blunders of sufficient magnitude to disqualify them for office. Gingrich got a head start on Dec. 23, 2010, when he gave a heated verbal blast against the vote that extended unemployment benefits for another 99 weeks. According to Gingrich, the American people "got nothing for the $134 million for doing nothing." One seldom experiences such lack of empathy at Christmastime. You might say that he was the "Gingrich" that stole Christmas.

With regard to Palin, it appears that she will leave Gingrich in the dust when it comes to verbal blunders. Her early gaffes were humorous and people only chuckled at the creation of a new word, "refudiate" (rather than repudiate). Other candidates have been known to make similar errors. Warren Harding told friends that he liked to go out into the countryside and "bloviate," which means to make longwinded speeches.  

Palin has a talent for more serious verbal miscues. Her strident ballistic rhetoric was on display early in the new year when her motto was made public: "Don't retreat — Reload." This unfortunate platitude was ever-present on television and radio. More problematic, this recommendation was associated with a map of the United States that had cross-hairs of a gun on 20 Democratic districts that have supported President Obama's health care plan. Is this symbolism appropriate for political debate in the heated atmosphere we now experience?

An even more volatile debate ensued as a consequence of a tragic shooting of a congresswoman and several citizens in Tucson, Ariz., in January. Several prominent political leaders, including the president, offered words of condolence to the victims and their surviving family and friends. Palin also made a brief statement expressing sorrow for this alarming event.

For whatever reason, Palin made reference to the need for journalists and pundits not to "manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn." There was an immediate and widespread reaction to what seemed to be a most awkward and inappropriate reference to a medieval practice of anti-Semitism. In addition, there was a revival of the question of her competence for the huge demands of the White House. It is an open question, at this early period, whether Palin can even make it to the front porch.



Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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