Thursday, October 29, 2009

Quote of the Day (Samuel Burchard, Losing an Election for the GOP With a Gaffe)

“We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion. We are loyal to our flag.”—Rev. Samuel Burchard, October 29, 1884, coining an alliterative phrase that lost the election for his Presidential candidate, James G. Blaine (pictured left)

In keeping with the spirit of Burchard, pastor of the Murray Hill Presbyterian Church, I have come up with my own alliteration to describe October 29, 1884: DDD—i.e., the Day of Double Disaster. Well, disaster for Blaine, anyway.

The day would have been bad enough for its evening event: a “prosperity dinner” at Delmonico’s restaurant, featuring 200 of the nation’s robber barons gathered for the Republican Blaine. As Henry Graff noted in his biography of Blaine’s opponent, Grover Cleveland, the sight of so many tycoons pulling up on the street in their carriages was “simply out of place” amid an economic downturn. But then, as now, the GOP were unfazed by plutocratic pornography.

(Before I get buzzed by those of a more conservative persuasion, I hasten to add that today, Democrats have their own fat cats—including this one.)

In some ways, this second disaster, in my opinion, was worse than the one earlier in the day, as Blaine seemed untroubled by the specter before him and the event’s masterminds, having planned this well in advance, seemed not to have a clue about the potential P.R. fallout—especially the New York World cartoon called “The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings.”

But the controversy that really made the difference in the election was one that the “Plumed Knight,” who had been angling patiently for the nomination for the last eight years, was utterly unprepared for, probably because of utter exhaustion. Both Democrats and Republicans were convinced that the election would turn on New York, just as in 2004 both parties’ major consultants correctly concluded that the Presidential sweepstakes would ride on Ohio.

In an attempt to win this swing state, Blaine had crisscrossed it nonstop in these closing weeks of the campaign, so that on the morning of the 29th, as he sat down for a meeting with a group of Protestant ministers at New York’s Fifth Avenue Hotel, he was catching his breath—and collecting his gray matter—when Burchard dropped his bombshell.

I believe it was columnist Michael Kinsley who coined the phrase, “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.” If that’s the operative (if unofficial) definition, then there ought to be another term for a politician undone (or at least put in hot water) by a supporter’s big mouth, as Blaine was. (Maybe we can call this “The Wright Stuff,” after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who placed his longtime congregant, Barack Obama, in his own political cauldron in 2008.)

Each of the three ‘r’s identified by Burchard was problematic for the Republicans. The least difficult was the third ‘r’, “Rebellion,” a reference to the divisions still left, a generation later, by the Civil War. Since the war, the GOP had adopted the so-called “waving the bloody flag” strategy—reminding voters that, while they had supported the Union cause unreservedly, Southern Democrats had been instrumental in the secession movement and many Northern Democrats opposed fighting the war to its conclusion. But now, with Reconstruction having ended, the efficacy of such appeals had worn off—and, in the South, could be counterproductive.

“Rum” was a phrase close to Burchard’s heart, as an advocate of Prohibition. With the establishment of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874, the movement was gathering momentum, though not enough yet to pass a constitutional amendment, as it did in 1918.

But the Republicans, like the Democrats, regarded the movement at this point with extreme caution, if not distaste. Much of the reason stemmed from the source of votes. Of the approximately 1,000 voting booths in the city during this single election, some 60% were located in saloons. The appeal of this “reform” movement was lost on New Yorkers and other city residents.

But it was the “Romanism” part of Burchard’s introduction of Blaine that caused the biggest ruckus. Afterward, the minister claimed that he hadn’t intended to insert the word—it simply sprang to mind as he was hunting spontaneously for a third item to complete his ringing phrase.

Maybe age had something to do with it, too—when he retired a year later, The New York Times reported that he was “the oldest member of the Presbyterian Church in this country.” Age eliminates the self-censorship button that many people maintain.

Whatever the cause might be, Burchard probably didn’t have to rummage far in his subconscious to dredge up his bit of anti-Catholic bigotry.

“Romanism” proved so toxic because it was adjacent to “Rum.” At the time, immigrant Catholics were being blamed for all kinds of urban unrest, including poverty, violence and corruption—all associated by much of the public with alcohol.

Here’s why Burchard’s remarks held so much peril for Blaine: He believed that he could finally swing the Empire State into the Republican column.

Despite his association with the so-called “Blaine Amendment” that sought to eliminate government funding for parochial schools, the leader of the “Half-Breeds” (the moderate conservative wing of the GOP) thought he stood a decent chance to win Catholic votes this time. He had, for starters, gotten under the skin of the British government during his brief service as Secretary of State under President James Garfield.

More important was his background: Not only was his mother Irish Catholic, but his sister was a mother superior in a convent. How could anyone be anti-Catholic with those kinds of associations?

Someone with associates like the Rev. Burchard, that’s who, according to Democrats. Blaine didn’t do or say anything immediately after Burchard’s outburst to signal disapproval. The only explanation I have for his curious inaction was exhaustion; the last six weeks of the campaign would see him make approximately 400 speeches, addresses so Dickensian in their flamboyance that he would be indisposed afterward.

The RRR speech was an answer from heaven from Democrats on the defensive over Cleveland’s possible fatherhood of a child out of wedlock. Senator Arthur Pue Gorman, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, gave the order to his underlings as soon as he heard Burchard’s phrase: “See to it that the statement is in every newspaper in the country by tomorrow.”

By the next day, when Blaine had his wits about him, he had denounced the minister’s statement, but it was too late by then. We’ll never know exactly how many votes the incident cost, but consider this: Blaine lost the election by less than three tenths of 1% of the total vote. He lost New York, too.

Of course Tammany Hall had the discipline and resources needed to mount a major offensive against Blaine, but for once the organization didn’t have to do much to convince people to turn out. Catholic priests were so incensed by the whole affair, in sermons the week before the election, they urged parishioners to vote against Blaine.

Thirty-five years later, when Carrie Phillips, a former lover of Warren Harding, was threatening to tell the press nasty things about the Republican nominee, GOP bosses found enough funds to pay for a trip to Asia that would take her and her husband outside the country until after the 1920 election. I’m sure Blaine wished he could have done the same thing for the minister that got him into so much trouble.

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