Today’s politics present a hammering mix of sloganeering, sound bites, and sophisticated imagery cycling at breakneck speed through every medium possible. Before electronics, before electricity, American politicians plied their trade at a far slower pace and in far different ways.
During six decades straddling the turn of the 19th into the 20th century a particular party made a commonplace of a stratagem suited to the era yet rooted in an already fading past. By 1880, the front porch had become a ubiquitous American icon, symbolic of family, of substance, of stability. What better place to pose a candidate? The gambit worked so well that a middle-era porch campaign even employed it in the first mass-distributed political advertisement using motion pictures.
In the summer of 1880, facing a tightly contested presidential election, the Republican Party needed a gimmick. The party of Lincoln had held the White House for 12 years. The Republicans’ man, James A. Garfield, had all the credentials a candidate could want: a fatherless and impoverished childhood on a farm—he was born in the proverbial log cabin, the last presidential nominee to wear that badge—an upright adolescence and young manhood as a scholar and teacher, charter Republican Party membership, election to the Ohio legislature, combat at Shiloh and Chickamauga, and eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives building a reputation as a radical Republican, on the basis of which his legislative colleagues sent him to the U.S. Senate.
But the Grand Old Party was flummoxed. Inflation-plagued incumbent Rutherford B. Hayes had declined to seek a second term because he knew his party wouldn’t give him the nod. Despite all his attributes, Garfield was a compromise, selected by the bosses only after 35 ballots failed to swing the convention to U.S. Senator James G. Blaine (R-Maine) or former president Ulysses S. Grant—neither free of taint.
The Democratic nominee, Winfield Hancock, was no match for Garfield as a politician; he’d never run for office. But he could claim military service. Hancock had ended the Civil War, like his opponent, as a general. And considering the ire that Hayes had aroused, simply being a Democrat was a big asset. Add the lingering scent of Grant’s slime-speckled tenure as president, mix in the economic woes that had sunk Hayes, and it was clear that James Garfield would need whatever help he could get to win the Oval Office. GOP tacticians decreed a new approach. Rather than haul their candidate around the country like a tame elephant, they would keep him at home, literally. Garfield would stay in his own house on the outskirts of Mentor, Ohio.
There, physically linked to his Buckeye roots, he would be poised to project the dignified and earnest image of a family man and yeoman son of the soil, a Cincinnatus awaiting the call to serve. Garfield endorsed the idea. Years of working in Washington and campaigning to stay there had allowed him little time with his wife, Lucretia, and their children; he was happy to remain at home.
When he’d bought the place four years before, it had been a dilapidated farmhouse; the Garfields dramatically enlarged it, wrapping the old structure in a Queen Anne–style expansion whose focal point was a vast front porch. The boys from the GOP liked that porch. They could envision the candidate on it, speaking to crowds of his fellow Americans. But how to get those fellow Americans to Garfield? No problem—the railroads, a mainstay of the party, agreed to build a spur line from the station in Mentor to a spot behind the house and to provide passage for supporters at low or no cost.
Visitors, en masse or individually, could disembark, walk around to the porch, and cheer as Garfield uncorked a few chosen words. Even better, the Garfields had enough land at the front of their homestead that the family could let the gentlemen of the press—whose publisher bosses were staunch GOP members—observe the proceedings and, if desired, pitch tents from which to maintain constant coverage.
The scenario played out perfectly. Garfield spent the summer and fall on the porch, meeting and greeting individuals and addressing enthusiastic crowds of farmers, tradesmen, veterans, and other affinity groups shipped in on that spur line. One day might bring seven railcars of Germans; another day, 1,880 members of the Indianapolis Lincoln Club, uniformed in long linen coats and straw tricorn hats.
The Jubilee Singers, from all-black Fisk University, came to sing spirituals. “Visitors were charmed by scenes of unpretentious domesticity,” wrote historian Allan Peskin. “Garfield’s aged mother rocking on the back porch, pitting cherries; the candidate himself perched on a window sill playing the hose on his naked sons; the entire family playing word games around the dinner table.” Garfield’s performance, quickly tagged “the front porch campaign,” drew scores of journalists. Camping on their allotted turf, the journos delighted to file essentially the same story every deadline. They nicknamed the candidate’s property “Lawnfield,” a sobriquet that sticks to this day.
Reporters genuinely liked Garfield, a personable fellow always willing to deliver a usable quote. Politicians had always played the family card, but Garfield played with his family, tossing the baseball with his boys and relaxing on the porch, scenes that often found their way into the text of newspaper articles and the images featured by the illustrated weeklies. The front-porch strategy worked.
In November, Garfield squeezed past Hancock, winning by 9,644 votes in the popular count but taking 215 electoral votes to Hancock’s 155. The Ohioan went back to the nation’s capital the following March. On July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau, usually described as a “disgruntled office seeker” but in reality a lifelong Bible-banging lunatic, approached President Garfield in the Washington railway station and shot him. Garfield’s wounds became infected; 80 days later, he was dead. Republicans mourned Garfield as a martyr.
And they never forgot the utility of the front-porch campaign, which they revived less successfully in 1892, on behalf of incumbent Benjamin Harrison, who was running amid populist discontent and strikes. Trying to placate voters, Harrison stayed home in Indianapolis, riding the porch in front of the now-standard manufactured crowds while his longtime rival Grover Cleveland tried to unseat him. Harrison’s image—he was known as “the human iceberg”—was more than lemonade and cookies could overcome. Cleveland crushed in the Electoral College, 277 to 145.
After that defeat, the Republicans might have been expected to ditch the front-porch approach, but four years later, with the country still in conflict, they not only revived the technique but transplanted it into an entirely new medium: moving pictures. The country was split East from West, progressive from conservative, farmer from urbanite, and the cause was money. The Panic of 1893, with its drain of gold from the Treasury vaults, had triggered a ruinous depression. Populist Democrats, strongest in the Midwest and West, believed a monetary standard relying on both silver and gold would revive the economy. Bankers and Republicans, who controlled the East, wanted to hew to gold.
Though they held House and Senate, the Democrats, whose ranks ran strong with silver enthusiasts, had turned on their incumbent president. Grover Cleveland opposed the silver standard to the point of engineering the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. Gracelessly booting Cleveland, silver-bug Democrats had gone for young William Jennings Bryan, a tub-thumping, fist-pumping populist. Accepting the nomination, Bryan, a backer of unlimited coinage of silver, had thundered, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” The cry became his theme as he crisscrossed the country by rail, addressing ever-larger crowds. Dark-haired, vigorous, and animated, Bryan, 36, would lean out over lectern or railing and let fly that incendiary line, and the adulatory hordes would be his.
GOP candidate William McKinley, on the other hand, was a man so measured of demeanor as to induce snores. His speeches—sonorous, oh-so-reasonable, and calculated not to alienate but to encompass—could put a pickpocket to sleep. Tall, handsome, thoughtful, politically savvy, determinedly centrist, and in person a warm and engaging presence, McKinley was practically James A. Garfield reborn. He’d served honorably in the Civil War, returning to Ohio to become first a lawyer and then a district attorney. Six terms in the House had earned him plaudits as an effective moderate, a coalition builder, and an advocate of high tariffs. He won Ohio’s governorship in 1891 and 1893, a preface to the 1896 GOP nod to run for president. At the podium, however, McKinley was distant and lifeless, a man of the establishment.
Old-seeming at 53, he was in no way inclined or equipped to joust with the rambunctious, relentless Bryan, the Boy Populist from the Prairies. McKinley had other reasons to dislike the idea of racing from whistle-stop to whistle-stop. His beloved wife, Ida, had lived in the grip of despair since their two daughters’ deaths in childhood, and William was reluctant to leave her for any length of time. But what if the campaign were to make an asset of McKinley as a figure of rootedness, phlegmatic demeanor, and profound devotion to hearth and spouse? Chief handler Mark Hanna and his adjutants could see how their man’s mien, with its blend of elements from the genial Garfield and the frosty Harrison, might lend itself to a front-porch campaign, this time abetted by a Republican-controlled media establishment grown far larger and more influential than the press had been 16 years before.
The routine was set: Instead of sending the candidate out to meet the people, the party would let the people, observed by the press, come to meet him. The idea appealed to McKinley, who knew his limitations and wanted to play to his strengths. “When I make speeches, I want to think,” he told a campaign manager. “I can’t roll them off a megaphone, as Bryan does. Furthermore, we can in traveling greet and meet comparatively few people in the country. Therefore, if every day I say something which I have had time to think over carefully, a large majority of voters will read that statement each day, and in the meantime, I avoid great fatigue.” So instead of tearing around chasing votes and taking the risk of confirming the suspicion that he was pure-heartedly dull, McKinley stayed put on his porch in Canton, Ohio.
His home was close enough to the railroad station that, unlike in the Garfield campaign, the railroad men didn’t need to build a spur line to the candidate’s house. The McKinley push began as soon as the party solons sent him a telegraph reporting that he had the nomination. (In keeping with the statesmanlike pose, the candidate didn’t sully himself by attending the convention.) As the summer of 1896 unfurled, McKinley and his front porch became synonymous. Each day, he would rise like an actor sleeping backstage, dress and eat breakfast, and then pass through the screen door into public life, delivering formal remarks to groups wrangled in like so many prize heifers herded by Hanna and associates. Or the candidate might chat with whoever dropped by.
“I rang and walked in,” an English reporter wrote. “Mr. McKinley was sitting on a rocking chair not ten feet from the door….He is gifted with a kindly courtesy that is plainly genuine and completely winning.” It was rope-a-dope, political style. All through the dog days of August and into September, while Bryan careered around the country, growing hoarse shouting about the cross of gold, McKinley remained in situ, a presidential presence amid the wicker and the woodwork, welcoming visitors with lemonade and conversation, somnolently urging Americans to quell their regional spats and to support protection that would revive the economy.
Read the texts and you’ll practically keel over where you sit from boredom. Periodically, the Republican would rise from his shade-graced chair and stroll into the yard to address whatever congregation the Hannites had assembled, while the press, grateful not to be trying to keep up with the peripatetic Democrat, took notes. Though their stories were all the same, they were always printed and always read. A cycle took form that has never abated. The 1896 campaign was an epic struggle. Bryan made some 600 stops, speaking to five million people in a contest that saw 6.4 million men vote. McKinley’s tally of face-to-face and face-to-crowd encounters was only 750,000.
However, the Republican’s captive brigade of reporters delivered a stream of stories that showed millions of readers the candidate in the endearing context of his home, his family, and his small Ohio town. And McKinley had a brand-new and soon to be essential tool. He was the first presidential candidate to star in a motion picture advertisement. Celluloid helped propel William McKinley into the White House and cement the image of the porch as an icon of Americana for good and all. The porch film came about through the candidate’s younger brother, Abner. A feckless, reckless sort whose résumé included selling bogus railroad bonds and touting a technique for making fake rubber, Abner McKinley did have the mother wit to invest in American Mutoscope and Biograph, a motion picture company. Having observed how enthusiastically audiences responded to one-reelers screened in movie houses, the younger McKinley suggested that a film of his brother be made and circulated to reach voters.
Hanna and company invited American Mutoscope founder W.K.L. Dickson and camera operator Billy Bitzer to Canton to stage and document a re-enactment of McKinley receiving the news of his nomination earlier in the summer. With Dickson directing, Bitzer set the camera in the candidate’s front yard. The perspective was at a medium distance from the porch, splitting the frame between house and lawn. Dickson explained to William McKinley what he wanted to see happen. With the steady-handed Bitzer at the crank to keep the action even and smooth, McKinley hit his marks while the moviemakers filmed the short they titled McKinley At Home—Canton—O.
It’s an Indian summer day. The grass and the foliage are still lush. The shadows are long, but whether from early or late sun you can’t tell. In black suits, McKinley and his secretary, George Cortelyou, stand by the porch, which is in shadow, three low steps up from the lawn. The camera doesn’t move, but the men do, looking at the lens as they walk toward it, making an effort to feign nonchalance. They move as people did before constant exposure to cameras, stepping slowly and exaggerating their gestures as if to help the lens do its job. McKinley pauses and puts on his hat. As Cortelyou looks on, the candidate dons spectacles and squints at a sheet of paper. He examines the sheet, then talks with Cortelyou. McKinley removes his hat and mops his brow, then looks at the camera. The two walk out of frame to the right. It’s the routine McKinley had been doing for months, but now the act, once on view only in Canton, could be seen anywhere.
McKinley had become a replicable event, and even before the premiere the film had an electrifying effect. Reporters who attended advance screenings weren’t quite sure how to describe this, this, this…thing, in which a candidate running for office by staying home in one place “appeared” elsewhere in the form of shapes and shadows flickering on screen.
“Major William McKinley will appear tonight in New York before a great throng of people, which will include members of the Republican National Committee,” the Mail and Express reported. However, the paper cautioned, the candidate would not be speaking. “The distinguished statesman will make his appearance, apparently on the lawn of his house in Canton, full life size, and in action so perfectly natural, that only the preinformed will know they are looking upon shadow and not substance.” The film bore out predictions. At the Olympia vaudeville house, a capacity crowd watched Stable on Fire, Niagara Upper Rapids, and other shorts of the sort familiar to habitués of nickelodeons. Then the projectionist rolled Empire State Express (a locomotive running at the camera), footage of a parade staged in McKinley’s honor, and finally the much-ballyhooed but brief political feature, which inspired shouts and applause.
Within a few years, sitting in a movie theater had become as natural an American act as sitting on the porch, but in 1896 Americans were uncalloused enough that Billy Bitzer’s simple short could wield immense power, by keeping the candidate on his porch and in his yard and simultaneously transporting his image around the country. The last front-porch campaign came as the porch was nearing the end of its heyday. The 1920 election hinged not on the gold standard but the League of Nations, the embodiment of the scary world emerging from the Great War.
A stroke-riddled Woodrow Wilson, out of office after two terms, had designated as his heir Ohio Governor James Cox, who was running with Wilson’s record wrapped around his neck like anchor chain. Cox’s Republican opponent was fellow Ohioan Warren Harding. A boosterist newspaperman turned machine pol, the big fellow had been chosen in the proverbial smoke-filled room at the party convention in Chicago.
With the country hungering for familiar tropes, the GOP kept Harding at home in Marion, Ohio, taking every opportunity to invoke the placid martyrs Garfield and McKinley. A crew transplanted the flagpole from McKinley’s yard to Harding’s, and Harding stood tall and handsome at the railing of an expansive porch rebuilt to replace one that had collapsed under the weight of well wishers hailing his 1899 election to the legislature.
As in 1880 and 1896, in 1920 the parades of Republican supporters streamed past, the bunting fluttered in the breeze, the party hacks heartily applauded—and now the photographers and camera operators were recording it all for replay in the daily papers and the newsreels.
The entire jolly operation was by way of keeping Warren Harding, a jovial knucklehead known for womanizing and spoonerisms, from being seen coming out of the wrong hotel room, tripping over his tongue, or declaiming anything more than his minimum daily quota of platitudes and pieties, notably his earnest and ungrammatical calls for “a return to normalcy.”
The porch routine not only avoided gaffes that could have undone the candidate, but appealed to voters who had wearied of Wilsonian internationalism. Riding the rejectionist tide, Harding swamped Cox and went from his front porch to the Oval Office. Three years later, on the verge of being swamped himself by scandal, Harding suddenly died. He was replaced by his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, a taciturn but canny politician who made a point of being photographed on many a front porch but rarely had much to say from them.