POLITICAL PERSUASION FROM THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION ERA

As we near the final countdown to the 2012 presidential elections, those of us living in the important swing state of Florida are being bombarded by radio, television, and internet ads denigrating one or the other of the candidates. Thus it is only fitting that The Wolfsonian museum has an exhibit on display highlighting historic election propaganda from an earlier era. Politics on Paper: Election Posters and Ephemera from The Wolfsonian-FIU Collection highlights the mass communication strategies of the first half of the twentieth century, when posters and paper propaganda were the key means of reaching the electorate.

The exhibition also features a video component, Political Advertisement VII: 1952–2008, which projects American television campaign spots compiled by video artists Antoni Muntadas and Marshall Reese. Although television ads were not possible in the 1930s, political campaigners did make good use of cartoons and other film shorts shown before feature films in movie theaters to back one candidate or pillory another. In a Betty Boop for President cartoon from 1932, for example, Betty Boop morphs into the pudgy face of President Hoover, while the accent of the stereotypical stick-figure challenger, “Mr. Nobody” sounds very much like Franklin Roosevelt!

Political campaign ephemera from the Wolfsonian rare book library provides a window back in time to the 1932 presidential election, President Franklin Roosevelt’s post-inauguration campaign to build popular support for his National Recovery Administration (NRA), and his successful re-election bid in 1936.

Our own Digital Library Specialist, David Almeida has just finished installing our digital display of the library materials, Presidential Politics in the Depression Decade.

By 1932, President Herbert Hoover’s reputation had plummeted alongside the Stock Market and Republican campaign strategists chose not to focus on their unpopular candidate; instead, they warned the electorate against the supposed dangers of changing administrations in the midst of the crisis. Patriotic red, white and blue Republican Party campaign literature capitalized on the GOP icon, the sturdy elephant, and contrasted it to the braying, stubborn Democratic donkey. Their efforts failed to sway the electorate, however, who overwhelmingly voted for the Democratic challenger—and patrician populist—Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The 1936 presidential election can be seen as a referendum on FDR and his New Deal policies designed to fix the economy and put depression-weary Americans back to work. In light of the recent elections in Venezuela that have returned Hugo Chávez to office, I thought that I might highlight in today’s blog post some of those library items that deal with an equally controversial populist strongman–Louisiana governor, senator and presidential contender, Huey Pierce Long.

Not unlike Chávez, the charismatic Governor of Louisiana promised to redistribute wealth, enlisted a paramilitary army answerable only to himself, and made himself a virtual dictator in his state. As governor, Long pushed through the most aggressive road construction projects ever seen in Louisiana> He built a bridge spanning the mighty Mississippi, a new governor’s mansion and state capital, a charity hospital and an airport for New Orleans, and buildings and a stadium for the Louisiana State University campus.

Long also endeared himself to the poorer population by shifting the tax burden to the corporate interests and using the revenue to support public schools and to provide millions of poor Louisiana school children (black and white) with free text books. But to accomplish these monumental feats, Long blackmailed and sequestered political enemies, required political appointees and public servants in the state to contribute to his political coffers, turned the state legislature into a rubber stamp, and bullied and punished political opponents by cutting them off from “pork” projects and threatening to end their political careers. Needless to say, Long was simultaneously adored by many of his poorer constituents and absolutely despised by most everyone else.

In 1932, Governor Long, who liked to refer to himself as the “Kingfish,” had thrown his considerable political weight behind Franklin Roosevelt’s candidacy, and so considered himself to be a “kingmaker” in that election. Believing that he had secured Roosevelt’s commitment to his own radical plans for economic redistribution in return for his support, Long claimed that his trust had been betrayed by FDR, and broke with the president soon after his inauguration.

With his own ambitions aimed at the White House, as early as 1933 Governor Long proposed an alternative to the NRA, the AAA, and other top-down, bureaucratic programs of the first New Deal. The “Long plan,” a series of bills aiming at the redistribution of the nation’s wealth, would have established a progressive tax code and a cap on the personal fortunes of multimillionaires. Elected to the United States Senate, Long was dismayed to see his colleagues reject his radical bills, prompting him to warn them that a “mob is coming to hang the other ninety-five of you damn scoundrels and I’m undecided whether to stick here with you or go out and lead them!”

In 1934 Long formed a national political organization (the Share Our Wealth Society), introduced his wealth redistribution plan in a national broadcast, and published a national newspaper to promote the plan and his own presidential ambitions. He proposed to provide every family with a minimum annual income, free vocational and college education, old-age pensions, veterans benefits, public work projects, paid vacations, and a thirty-hour work week. In an attempt to discredit Long, President Roosevelt launched an IRS investigation into his financial dealings and redirected federal public work program money away from a man he deemed one of the two “most dangerous men in America.”

Arguing that there was nothing socialistic about his program, Long claimed that it drew its inspiration from the New Testament and the Declaration of Independence rather than from the Communist Manifesto and he defended the merits of his approach against that of the political left in a public debate with Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas. Of course, in declaring that his own program was the best safeguard against Red revolutionaries, Long did not exactly endear himself to the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). In fact, the Party’s most active artist Hugo Gellert ridiculed Long, depicting him as a dangerous demagogue and dictator whose slogans sounded fine, but whose actions hurt the working class. Playing on the title of Long’s first autobiography and the campaign song he helped compose, Every Man A King, Gellert satirized Long’s policies that had imposed on the working men of Louisiana a crown of thorns.

In another illustration, Gellert lumped Huey Long together with three other arch-conservatives under the heading of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Long is flanked on the far left by General Hugh Johnson, a “Brain-Truster” entrusted by FDR with the National Recovery Administration until the former general’s military demeanor and outspoken admiration for Il Duce and fascism led to his replacement. In Gellert’s cartoon, Johnson wears a graduation gown and cap upon which is perched a sickly “blue eagle”—symbol of the NRA. Next to Johnson rides a knight—publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst—whose sympathy and admiration for Adolf Hitler is reflected in the swastika printed on his standard. In spite of the fact that Governor Long never engaged in race-baiting and was surprisingly progressive in his racial views, Gellert pictured him in a Ku Klux Klan costume brandishing iron manacles. To his right, rides an inquisitorial Grim Reaper (Father Charles Coughlin)–the vitriolic, anti-Semitic “Radio Priest” who had declared “Roosevelt or ruin” in 1932, but in the lead up to the 1936 election had changed his tune and was denouncing the president as a dangerous Communist.

Other cartoons and publications by Gellert and other leftist artists depicted Hearst and the Radio Priest as crypto-fascists hiding behind the flag or the crucifix.

GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

Partnering with the right-wing Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, Huey Long established a national network of 27,000 clubs taking in 7,500,000 members, forcing Roosevelt to move to the left and push forward his “second” New Deal. The Works Progress Administration, the Social Security Act, and other “grassroots” programs were designed to “steal Long’s thunder.”

When Sinclair Lewis published It Can’t Happen Here, a timely novel describing the rise to power in America of a demagogic dictator, he was most certainly drawing on Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and others for his characters. The director of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) Hallie Flanagan secured Lewis’ permission and help in adapting the novel for the stage. The FTP simultaneously launched productions of the play in cities all across the United States warning Americans to be wary of ambitious and unscrupulous would-be dictators.

In 1935, even as he laid the groundwork for a third-party challenge to FDR’s presidency, Huey Long penned a second autobiographical political tract, presumptuously titled, My First Days in the White House.

In it, he laid out his blueprint for what he would do when he won the presidency. But it was not to be. The son-in-law of one of Long’s political enemies in Louisiana shot him in the abdomen before his body guards riddled the assassin’s own body with bullets. My First Days in the White House would be published posthumously.

~ by "The Chief" on October 13, 2012.

2 Responses to “POLITICAL PERSUASION FROM THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION ERA”

  1. So glad to see the exhibit finally up! The materials look great- good job!

  2. Reblogged this on THE GRAPEVINE.

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