Al Smith was Governor of New York before his nomination for President in 1928, but his path to fame was less distinguished, as he rose up through the ranks of Tammany Hall. Starting out working with the pier workers on the docks of New York City, one of the major bases of Tammany’s political machine, Smith was fully a part of the organization which regularly took bribes from immigrants in exchange for citizenship, and packed the votes of many elections to ensure that their candidates won the elections. Before the Great Depression started in 1929. political machines were the source of support for people in need of economic help, as the Federal Government was not involved in welfare, unemployment insurance or any other benefits we have grown so used to. Smith appealed to the urban immigrants as a source of political support while campaigning for President, but he lost to Republican candidate Herbert Hoover in an election where the nation was still high on the economic boom of the 1920s. Smith was especially unique in his rebellion against Prohibition, and people knew he longed for the good old days when people could quaff beers in the saloon with impunity. Franklin Delano Roosevelt handily won the election in 1932, successfully marshaling the urban political coalition that Smith had started to organize. When Roosevelt began to Federalize aid for the needy with his New Deal program, however, Smith rebelled, feeling that such aid should stay local so that it could be more personal and less wasteful. Perhaps he felt that Tammany Hall was not all bad, as it did more for people than pack the vote. Smith’s sympathies in this regard were not in line with the trends of the 20th century, however, as the Federal Government established scores of programs under the Democratic Party to help the needy. In some ways, Smith’s political positions were part of the ethics of a bygone age.
The Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan three times for President, but he never won. He galvanized the Democratic Convention in 1896 with his Cross of Gold speech, where he shook the rafters with his stark demand that the US Monetary System be taken off of the Gold Standard. Bryan, however, represented the old version constituency of the Democratic Party, as his message appealed to farmers and miners in the southern and western United States. Originally a congressman from Nebraska, Bryan came from what is now a bygone age, and desperately wanted small farmers and men who toiled in the mines to have a better standard of living and more political power. The demographics of political change, however, were not on his side, as the immigrants in American cities were on the increase and farmers and miners were on the decrease. His ideals, such as the importance of religion and American isolationism, also came to push him to the sidelines, as the world was changing, and not in a way that pleased him. Woodrow Wilson made him Secretary of State when he won the Presidency in 1912, but Bryan resigned when Wilson decided to enter the First World War. Similarly, Bryan was the prosecuting attorney in the Scopes Trial, where he stood with the fundamentalist cultural forces that wanted religion taught in schools rather than evolution. The defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, prohibited by the Tennessee Court from calling scientists from places like Harvard, put Bryan on the stand and made fun of some of the improbabilities of taking the words of the Bible literally. Unfortunately for Bryan, the media made him a laughing stock as a result of this testimony in 1925, and the inspiring political speeches he gave in the past were long forgotten. Sincere as his beliefs were, it is sad to say, Bryan was on the wrong side of history.
Joseph Pulitzer made Nellie Bly famous in 1888 by having her circle the Globe in under eighty days, beating the fictional record set in Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. Pulitzer’s papers followed her progress in feature stories as she went from continent to continent, and massive crowds flocked to the pier when she returned to Manhattan.
Famous though this jaunt made her, it was far less courageous than many of Nellie’s other investigations. She got a job in a sweatshop factory to make informed reports of the cruelty to which women were subjected there. She lived and investigated terrible conditions in Mexico so effectively that the Mexican government grew sick of the bad publicity and kicked her out of the country. She imitated a mentally ill person so effectively that Blackwell Insane Asylum admitted her, and she was witness to so many atrocities that her investigation prompted a reform movement of mental hospitals. She wrote a book on the subject, entitled Ten Days in a Mad-House, detailing her much needed investigation. In her day to day reporting she wrote important articles about government corruption and the exploitation of child labor, women’s rights and underpaid immigrants in terrible factories.
Bly showed incredible courage in blazing a trail for other women reporters, for few women were able to break this glass ceiling until much later in the 20th century. Her willingness to risk her own life to report on cruelty and injustice should be an inspiration to any investigative reporter who wants to expose injustice.
In 1871, James Gordon Bennett got so drunk at his own engagement party that he urinated into the piano, resulting in his getting kicked out of Manhattan high society. His former fiance’s brother attacked him there with a horse whip the next day, causing Bennett to flee such social ignominy for the comfort of France, where he lived and ran the Herald via telegram, for the most part, for the rest of his life. Such an arrangement necessitated some unusual working arrangements, such as employees tattling on each other for offences real or imagined to their boss via telegram. Such an arrangement was called the White Mice, and led to an atmosphere of intrigue at the Herald. Bennett continued his aggressive drinking habits in France, which were quite noticeable. In a Paris restaurant that he spent a great deal of money in, he did not hesitate to make waves. Bennett would walk up to the tables of dining couples and announce that he was a magician, then attempt to yank their tablecloth from beneath their repast, resulting in a flying mess that erupted upon the diners. He would pay the bills for the meals and the dry cleaning, and the restaurant would never kick out this high paying customer. On one occasion he could have been arrested from drunken coaching, if such laws had been enforced at the time. Wildly careening home to his castle at the reins of a coach with four horses galloping recklessly onward, Bennett did not notice that an archway he was about to go under was a bit low. It was so low, in fact, that it smashed into his forehead, knocking him ass-backwards off of the coach and onto the ground below.
Despite his unusual drinking habits, however, Bennett was an impressive journalist, and kept the Herald as the international paper that Abraham Lincoln had previously chosen as his principal newspaper to read. An inventive man, Bennett sent Henry Morgan Stanley across Africa to find the noted medical philanthropist Dr. Livingstone in the heart of that broad continent after a rather perilous journey to find him. When Stanley was feted with a ticker-tape parade on Manhattan, however, Bennett became incensed, feeling that he was the man who should have been honored, because it was his idea, was it not?!
Whatever his uniqueness in many ways, Bennett was a historical figure in the history of American journalism. The main English newspaper in Paris today is the International Herald Tribune, formerly the Paris Herald, which Bennett established in the late nineteenth century. He was truly an American in Paris.
Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane shows a lonely, grumpy old man isolated with his second wife in his baronial castle, a couple who trade ghastly insults like human gargoyles. This impression is incorrect, for Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies, had a solid and loving relationship that she stayed faithful to despite the fact that he could never marry her, as his first wife would not grant him a divorce. Neither was his castle, San Simeon, a lonely place, for Hearst was forever entertaining scores of guests in a most generous manner. It was the portrayal of Davies that caused Hearst to try to stop the release of the movie, for she was a far nicer woman than the movie version, and had no weakness for alcohol whatsoever.
On the other hand the movie is quite accurate in showing Hearst as an outgoing and talented man who had a penchant for attracting peoples’ attention in a most sensational manner. This talent was demonstrated when Hearst was quite young, when he set off flares in the locked bathroom screaming for help from his parents as though he were trapped in a fire. Hearst was not punished for this crude misdeed, nor did his mother restrain him years later went he lost millions a year promoting his newly created news empire. In this the movie is quite accurate, for Hearst was, if nothing else, a showman extraordinaire, having created a dynamic corporation that still exists to this day.
The actual William Randolph Hearst was a creature of contradictions. In person, he was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, yet from a distance (as in through his newspapers) he could attack with the vengeance of a tiger. Many of the economic elite of the Gilded Age found this out to their own remorse. Colis P. Huntington, for instance, the railroad magnate, tried unsuccessfully to cry poverty and abandon payment of his loans from the government when Hearst pointed this out throughout the country.
One other impression that is somewhat inaccurate is that Hearst was purely a sensationalist whose desire the sell papers trumped any attachment to the truth. This characterization is from his circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer during the Spanish American War in 1898, when the term yellow journalism was created, a demeaning one that assaulted Hearst’s entire newspaper career. The truth is that, though Hearst was far from perfect, his pugnacious style of journalism did a great deal of good for the America of his day, setting precedents for journalists who followed after him to confront the powers that be.
William Randolph Hearst was an extraordinary fellow, one of the creators of what we today call the Fourth Estate. He was an aggressive man, who assaulted many of the injustices of his day, yet in his personal life he was far more polite and reserved than Citizen Kane might suggest.
Kim Jong Un, we might recall, has had the Uncle who helped get him into power killed with anti-aircraft guns, had his picture taken with an illusory missile from a submarine that defied the laws of physics, gotten haircuts which male residents of the Hermit Kingdom must imitate or face the pain of death, as well as plan to shoot citizens who watch videos making fun of him that are flown in on hot air balloons from South Korea. Such unusual pronouncements are now added to by a new one where the unique young dictator completely forgot drunken threats he made to his military generals. After upbraiding them for not conquering enough countries, Jong Un commanded that they write letters of apology to him for their supposed incompetence. The following day, when the Generals appeared to present their letters, perhaps fearing for their lives, considering the pugnacious leader’s record, he had totally forgotten the previous evening’s command. He queried them about the reason for their presence, attempting to strike fear into them by pointing out that they might die soon from old age, or other more immediate causes, one might suppose. Perhaps in the future he will have someone killed in a blackout from too much drinking, then order their presence the following day, forgetting that he had had them eliminated.
Joseph Pulitzer, as a newspaperman, had a passion for secrecy, and sought to completely hide his professional actions from his enemies. One method he used to ensure that this was so was by having code names for all of the prominent people and things that he dealt with on a regular basis. If one of his enemies intercepted any of his letters or paperwork, therefore, they wouldn’t be able to tell who or what was being talked about. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, was called Glutinous, and his arch newspaper rival William Randolph Hearst was known as Gush. Advertising in the papers was termed Potash, and whoever was the managing editor was referred to as Gruesome. Hence, an intercepted communication might have read Gruesome skewered Glutinous better than Gush could ever do, meaning that the managing editor had criticized Roosevelt better than Hearst. Pulitzer’s opponents, however, could not make heads or tails of such messages.