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The Presidential Debates Of '08 — 1908, That Is

It seems almost impossible to get away from the presidential campaign these days. The candidates are arguing on the radio in your car, plopping down in your living room on the TV, and even popping up on your computer.

For all that, you can thank William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft. Those two kicked off the era of the mass-media presidential campaign a century ago. And the modern parallels are uncanny.

In the spring of 1908, Bryan, a Democrat, was about to make his third run for president. Republicans had beaten him twice before, and a daunting opponent stood in his way: Taft, Teddy Roosevelt's hand-picked successor. The moneyed Republicans were the majority party, and Bryan was looking for any advantage he could find.

The National Phonograph Co., run by Thomas Edison, made Bryan an offer he couldn't refuse: record a series of two-minute mini-speeches on wax cylinders. The company would sell them for 35 cents each. Bryan even got paid $500, a handsome sum at the time. He donated the money to the Democratic Party.

Bryan was already a political innovator: He was making whistle-stop tours a half-century before Harry Truman's famous tour.

But in 1908, many people thought it improper to bring campaigns to the populace.

"The office was supposed to seek the man, the man wasn't supposed to seek the office. You weren't supposed to be too greedy for power," says Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin. "So the idea of going around hawking yourself as if you were some sort of commodity, some sort of product, was seen to be unseemly by a lot of people."

The Republican Taft was far more "old school," but he refused to be outdone. Edison's company made recordings of him, as well. One recording accused the Democrats of a cut-and-run plan for the Philippines — a scenario not unlike debate over the Iraq war.

Taft also got $500 for his efforts, plus a new phonograph.

"The political culture into which these recordings entered was still the same one that had considered Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to be ridiculously short," says Indiana University's Patrick Feaster. Feaster is one of the liner-note writers for a new CD, Debate '08, which features the ground-breaking recordings of both candidates. "Speeches were long. These cylinders were two minutes. That was a big change."

David Giovannoni, who helped write and produce the CD, says the time limits on these cylinders forced the candidates to hone their messages.

"They may sound a little long and drawn out to us today, but I would argue that the 20th century's march to the sound bite begins with these recordings," he says.

Ron Cowen, who writes about the recordings in the magazine Science News, says the cylinders were played at rallies, in concert halls and for political clubs. It would be a half-century before the first general-election presidential debates were held, but a New York penny arcade created a mock '08 debate using the recordings. Mannequins of Taft and Bryan stood in front of a phonograph as the candidates' voices rang out.

Bryan's historic approach didn't win him the 1908 election, and these sorts of recordings soon died out. All three major candidates in the 1912 presidential election used the phonograph, but the recordings simply weren't making enough money.

Most Americans wouldn't routinely hear the voices of their candidates until a few years later, when they switched on that newfangled device, the radio.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Rabin