Monday, November 5, 2007

Lost Boys, Electric Bitters and Other Characters

While Rudy, Hillary, Mitt, Obama, John et al are certainly no slouches when it comes to possessing little foibles--there's John's 400 dollar haircut, Mitt's varmint hunting, Hillary's laugh, Rudy's hilarious recent prostate cancer ad, about as completely misleading as a political ad can be (and that's saying something).
But, being Mr. Nostalgia when it comes to the rough and tumble of American presidential campaigns, I still yearn for some of the forgotten presidential wanna-bes of old.
One of my favorites was the wonderfully named Champ Clark, Missouri Congressmen. In 1912, Champ was Democratic Speaker of the House and considered a very viable candidate for president against William Howard Taft. But Champ got it into his head to make a few extra bucks by shilling for a patent medicine company. His testimonial read, in part: "It seemed that all the organs in my body were out of order, but three bottles of Electric Bitters made me all right."
Champ became such a figure of ridicule that he was forced to drop out of the race, leaving the field clear for the far more understated Woodrow Wilson.
Another favorite perennial was turn-of-the-century Temperance candidate Silas G. Swallow. Will they ever craft a name like that again? I have also always loved Stephen Douglas, Abe Lincoln's 1860 opponent, the diminutive "Little Giant" with a stentorian voice which seems to have sounded a good deal like that of the old cereal box icon Tony the Tiger. If you think candidates today waffle on subjects like Iraq or abortion, check out this statement from Douglas on slavery: "I am for the negro against the crocodile, but for the white man against the negro." Nice. Douglas was also one of the first candidates to actually take to the campaign trail. Since it was not considered quite couth for presidential nominees to do their own shilling in those days, he hit upon the stratagem of claiming that that he was merely wending his way to upstate New York to visit his dear old mother, and paying a few visits to friends along the way. This caused gleeful Republicans to put out a "Lost Boy" poster: "Left Washington D.C. some time ago to go home to his mother., who is very anxious about him...last seen at a clambake in Rhode Island. Answers to the name of Little Giant. Talks a great deal, always very loud, always about himself."

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