The Greatest Show on Earth

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First published
in Time & Tide, August 11, 1956.

Part One:
The Hucksters' Chorus

It is a
privilege and a pleasure, fellow Americans, to be here with you
today. Meeting you will be my everlasting inspiration for the next
four years.

The Greatest
Show on Earth, Circusman John Ringling North to the contrary, is
upon us. Posters and billboards hawk the word. The political drummer,
the political huckster are working the hustings. Political campaign
committees are polishing their performers — the candidates for the
offices of alderman up to President. An all-star show. And, make
no mistake about it, this is show business.

For, to campaign
committees, candidates are u2018products', who are canned and taped
in one-minute u2018spots,' five-minute and fifteen-minute shows, and
are then shipped throughout the country for radio and TV from now
until the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Campaign
u2018news' releases will swamp editorial desks. Postmen will groan under
their extra bagsfull of u2018junk' mail. Candidates will be out u2018meeting
the people', shaking hands and eating pink spun sugar. Richard J.
Stengel Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Illinois for
example, has shaken more than 212,000 hands since last March and
is cut to make it a million by November. A clocking device in his
left hand records every shake. u2018In election years,' said the former
President Truman on his British tour, u2018we behave somewhat as primitive
people do at the time of the full moon.'

These quadrennial
proceedings have not been taken too kindly by historians. Wrote
James Harvey Robinson:

u2018Political
campaigns are designedly made into emotional orgies which endeavour
to distract attention from the real issues involved, and they
paralyse what slight powers of cerebration man can normally muster.'

And historian
Henry Adams:

u2018Power is
poison. Its effects on Presidents had always been tragic, chiefly
as an almost insane excitement at first, and a worse reaction
afterwards; but also because no mind is so well balanced as to
bear the strain of seizing unlimited force without habit or knowledge
of it; and finding it disputed with him by hungry packs of wolves
and hounds whose lives depend on snatching the carrion.'

Recently, fellow
Americans, a reporter asked me if I were a conservative. I told
him what Josh Billings said: u2018If a man is right, he can't be too
radical. And if he is wrong, he can't be too conservative.'

Like Broadway
productions, campaigns have their critics. During the u2018try-out'
stages of the '52 campaign, publisher Roy Howard accused the Republican
effort of u2018running like a dry creek.' Doctoring took place and so
did better reviews. In fact, the Eisenhower campaign was a smash
hit, judged by the box-office count: votes.

Question is,
how do you get votes? A long-discovered secret in the political
trade seems to have been promises. Indeed, promises constitute an
occupational illness in politicking. Symptoms of the illness become
far more noticeable around election-time. And, if the political
promisers take some licence with facts; and fulfillments, don't
be alarmed. Such has been the advice to politicians through the
ages.

Football, fellow
Americans of South Bend, is my favorite sport, too.

u2018One has great
need,' wrote Quintus Cicero in his Handbook of Politics toward
the end of the Roman Republic, u2018of a flattering manner, which, wrong
and discreditable though it may be in other walks of life, is indispensable
in seeking office.' Again from the Handbook: u2018Human nature
being what it is, all men prefer a false promise to a flat refusal.'

u2018The prince
must be a lion,' said Machiavelli, u2018but he must also know how to
play the fox.'

Disraeli: u2018Lay
it on with a trowel.'

British playwright
John Galsworthy: u2018Don't say in power what you say in Opposition.
If you do, you only have to carry out what the other fellows have
found impossible.'

Fellow Americans
of San Antonio, nothing thrills me more than rodeos.

Mencken also
noted how promises spice politicians' lives. In his A Mencken
Chrestomathy (Alfred A. Knopf, NY) he writes of the occasion
when he accompanied a presidential candidate on tour:

u2018He was,
like all such rascals, an amusing fellow and I came to like him
very much. His speeches at the start were full of fire. He was
going to save the country from all the stupendous frauds and false
pretences of his rival.

Every time
that rival offered to rescue another million of poor fish from
the neglects and oversights of God, he howled his derision from
the back platform of the train.

I noticed
at once that these blasts of common-sense got very little applause
and after a while the Candidate began to notice it too. Worse,
he began to get word from his spies on the train of his rival
that the rival was wowing them…

This had
some effect on him… He lost his intelligent manner… Instead of
mocking, he began to promise and in a little while he was promising
everything that his rival was promising and a good deal more.'

Barley country
has always had a strong appeal to me, fellow Americans, and I tell
you barley growers that it's a shame the way barley prices are falling.
When I’m elected I'll see that the Agriculture Department will increase
its support-buying of barley four-fold.

This year,
with the largest US voting population ever and the – continuing
upsurge of electronic communications, will be the biggest angelled
extravaganza of them all. Candidates will Teach, electronically
if not physically, every nook and corner of the Forty-Eight. There
will be no escape. Political jingles will leap out at you from your
auto radio. Canned TV movies of the candidates and their families
will usurp you of u2018I Love Lucy' and u2018Sargeant Bilko.' Kiddies will
yield up u2018Mousketeers Club' and u2018Howdy-Doody' to the National Conventions.
Plane crashes, murders, marriages, divorces will be crowded off
the front pages and may not get in the papers at all; political
u2018news' — endorsements, switches, speeches, platforms, etc. — takes
over. And from where will the political u2018news' come?

From the national
committees, the State committees, the county committees and the
city committees; from political clubs and political wards; from
speech-writers and public relations men from chairladies and chairmen
of thousands of organizations and groups; from the politicians themselves
and their wives. The rhetorical assault will come through all the
mass media.

For the citizen
— the man with the vote — it will be brain-washing on an assembly-line
basis morning, noon and night; political jingles will dance in his
head.

My party
and I, fellow Americans, stand for the three E’s. You know the three
E's by now; ENDEAVOUR! EFFORT! ENTERPRISE!

Yes, on so
nebulous a thing as a slogan, phrase or jingle may hang the fate
of the Party. The Federalists hit with u2018Those Who Own the Country
Ought to Govern It.' u2018Tippecanoe and Tyler Too' caught the fancy
in the Harrison-Tyler campaign. The first nominee of the Republican
Party John C. Frémont tried with u2018Free Soil, Free Men, Free
Speech, Fré-mont.' McKinley won with u2018The Full Dinner Pail.'
u2018He Kept Us Out of War' paid off for Wilson. Coolidge clicked with
u2018Keep Cool with Coolidge.' Al Smith went to town with u2018Let's Look
at the Record' but Hoover went to the White House with u2018A Chicken
in Every Pot, A Car in Every Garage.' F.D.R. worked wonders with
u2018Don't Switch Horses in the Middle of the Stream,' while the Republicans
could only play the broken records of, u2018Land on Prosperity with
Landon' and u2018Clear It
with Sidney.' u2018It's Time for a Change' finally ended a twenty-year
Republican drought.

Like other
types of political barrage, election slogans are not necessarily
coincidental with truth. u2018What we need today,' said railroader Robert
Young recently, u2018is a Truth in Politics Act to match the Truth in
Securities Act, clause by clause.' Said the late, and perhaps more
realistic, Senator John Ingalls, u2018The purification of politics is
an iridescent dream.'

Part Two:
Hitting the Road

I tell you,
fellow Americans of Illinois, there was only one Honest Abe.

Hoopla and
hokum, charges and counter-charges start about January of the election
year. In the months prior to conventions, politicians engage in
political horse-trading, voter-wooing and delegate-hunting. At this
point, delegates are the main consideration. This accounts for the
more immodest politicians whistle-stopping those States having presidential
preference primaries — shaking hands, kissing babies, looking over
hogs, judging beauty contests and tossing their hats into dozens
and dozens of rings. These political hopefuls are forever pointing
with pride and would rather be President than right. Conventions
arrive as the heat, weather-wise and political, rises. From all
over the nation, representing more than 2,500 local political organizations,
men and women delegates converge on the Convention city, most of
them already pledged or half-pledged to their u2018favourite sons' or
other candidates.

First, the
National Anthem; the delegates stand and hoarsely sing, u2018The Star
Spangled Banner.' Then the Credentials Committee decides who gets
in; the Rules Committee fixes the rules; and the Resolutions Committee
ceremoniously builds the party platform, plank by plank. Platforms
are as solid as clouds, as beautiful and as transient. Here the
politicians promise to rid the country of gambling, the boll weevil,
political corruption, the sins of the Opposition Party and sin in
general.

I tell you,
my fellow Americans of the South, there was only one Jeff Davis.

During the
platform proceedings of the 1932 Democrat convention, Lone Star
Lawyer Maury Hughes took the rostrum to state Texas' position in
support of the dry plank sponsored by the then Senator Cordell Hull
of Tennessee. Hughes stormed against u2018unbridled liquor traffic'
and reminded the convention of its u2018solemn obligation' to protect
the hearths and children of the nation. The Chairman interrupted
to call for order. Strangely, the disorder was in the Texas delegation,
where a caucus was under way. Just as Hughes again began to berate
alcohol, a Texas delegate called out from the floor:

u2018Wait a minute,
Maury, we've switched; don't do it, Maury. We've gone wet by one
vote.'

Maury Hughes
was equal to the occasion and, with no loss of rhythm or enthusiasm
in his speech, he too switched unblinkingly, and made a stirring
appeal for individual freedom — and the wet plank!

Balloting is
the raison d'être of conventions and stunts on, or about,
this point would do justice to Olsen and Johnson. u2018We Want Wilson,
We Want Wilson' — the chant for the college President who became
US President came from cheerleader-led college boys at the Baltimore
convention of the Democrats in 1912. u2018We Want Willkie,' shouted
the galleries in deafening unison at the Republican convention in
Philadelphia in 1940, after Willkie managers had indiscreetly distributed
tickets by the basketful to pro-Willkie supporters.

Also in 1940,
at the Chicago convention of the Democrats a Roosevelt draft was
sparked by the famous Voice from the Sewer, a thunderous loud speaker
planted in the basement of the hail and manned by Mayor Kelly's
Commissioner of Sanitation. u2018Missouri Wants Roosevelt,' blared the
Voice, and the Missouri delegates dutifully started a floor demonstration.
u2018Nebraska Wants Roosevelt,' pontificated the Voice, and the Nebraska
delegates fell in line.

Blue grass
country has always charmed me. And let me say that my favourite
animal is the horse, God's noblest steed.

After the conventions,
four whirlwinds sweep the country — two major whirlwinds for the
Presidential candidates, two minor for the Vice-Presidential. This
is campaigning in earnest — arena speeches, motorcades, torchlight
parades, giant rallies, campaign trains.

The Candidate's
campaign train is a good example of the art of political show business.
Elaborate preparations long precede the train's departure. Each
town, city and hamlet along the route must be alerted; local Chambers
of Commerce, farm, labour, social and political groups are buttonholed
to participate; signs must be printed and painted, hung in shop
windows and hammered on poles; uniforms have to be cleaned and pressed;
welcoming speeches have to be written.

Grazing
land is perhaps this country's most picturesque scenery. And the
steer, God’s most beloved creature!

On board the
train are strictly professionals — politicians and the Press. The
Press includes reporters, newsreel men, photographers, TV people,
radio people and commentators. Main politician is of course the
Candidate but almost equally important, for the women's vote, is
the Candidate's wife. If the Candidate has been blessed with children,
they too should be trundled out on to the rear platform. Also in
the Candidate's entourage are Secret Service men, speech-writers,
public relations experts, secretaries and occasionally bureaucrats,
from Cabinet or ex-Cabinet Members on down. Then, getting on board
for part or all the way through a State will be aldermen and freeholders,
mayors and judges, county agents, State Senators and Congressional
Senators, State representatives and Congressional representatives,
Governors and, of course, the party Chairmen (sometimes ingloriously
dubbed u2018bosses') — city chairmen, county chairmen, and State chairmen.
In this way, local interests and local colour, local issues and
local promises get play.

My fellow
Americans, I understand many of you or your parents hail from the
great country of Ruritania. I say we must do something for Ruritania.
Ruritania is menaced from within and without by the communists.
We must liberate the Ruritanians.

As many as
forty times a day, then, the candidate, his family, local politicians,
the governor and Senators (if in the same party, of course) march
to the rear platform and orate. Each time the Candidate is to greet
the local officials. And at some point a union president, an Elk,
a beauty queen, a Chamber of Commerce man, a Minister, or a Granger
presents the Candidate with a few choice ears of corn, a basket
of apples, a miner's helmet, a bouquet of flowers, an Indian headdress
or just the key to the town or city and says some carefully memorized
u2018appropriate words'; the High School band plays the National Anthem;
somebody signals the Engineer. Of goes the candidate to the next
stop and the same business all over again.

What a wonderful
sight is this mile after mile of walnut groves. The walnut is of
course queen of the nut family and I'm sorry to learn that the Army
Quartermaster Corps has cut down its walnut purchases. This means
our boys in uniform are being denied the nourishment and enjoyment
of walnuts. This has got to stop. It is going to stop.

Occasionally
a critical city off the main line is reached by a motorcade. So
politicians and the Press are obligingly supplied by local car dealers
with the latest model cars (cheap advertising when the Candidate
is viewed and photographed) — about thirty new cars in all. Motorcades
fit nicely in parades — and parades it usually is. In the line of
march are the, local (and inevitable) High School band, the American
Legion Post, the firemen, the policemen, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts,
political organizations, maybe nurses and, if close by, the regional
National Guard unit. American flags line the streets and political
signs are everywhere. The crowd lets go with cheers and whistles
as the Candidate passes by.

This is
a sight for sore eyes, fellow Americans: the American flag unfurled
in the breeze; our soldiers on parade. You know I saw service in
World War I. And speaking to my buddies of that war and to you vets
of World War II, I say you deserve higher pensions than you’re now
getting: And when I’m elected…

Then there
are the big speeches — u2018major addresses' as they're called — in
the big cities. The occasion calls for an arena or stadium — Madison
Square Garden in NY, the Public Auditorium in Cleveland, Wrigley
Field in Chicago (Soldier's Field, if the Party can fill it), the
Cow Palace in San Francisco, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles —
each brimming with thousands of the faithful, in good voice and
wildly enthusiastic.

This is a ballyhooed,
search-lighted, televised rally and an off-the-cuff talk of the
campaign train or motorcade variety won't do. Television time on
a nation-wide hook-up is extremely expensive and always takes a
healthy whack out of the campaign funds. Accordingly, the u2018major
address' is a carefully prepared statement, closely timed to the
thirty minutes allotted television time. The rub, is that a modem
political Party must appeal to so many diverse groups that the resulting
speech, ducks many issues and often amounts to but a series of jeweled
platitudes.

A dazzling
ribbon of light picks out the Candidate in the darkened stadium.

Our Founding
Fathers offered us no panaceas, no nostrums But they did offer us
opportunities

— the
golden opportunities of hard work and common sense. (Applause.)
So let us eradicate fear, fellow Americans. Let us combine security
with progress. Let us close the gap between our advanced technology
and the inadequacies of our social organization. Let us go forward
towards a civilization and a world which caters effectively to
man's needs. (Applause.)

I say: u2018Down
with the Golden calf, up with Social Truth.' Let us march together
in this great crusade, for ours is the Promised Age. (Long applause.)

De Tocqueville
in his Democracy
in America
, 1835:

u2018In America
the principle of the sovereignty of the people is… recognized
by the customs and proclaimed by the laws; it spreads freely,
and arrives without impediment at its most remote consequences.
If there is a country in the world where the doctrine of the sovereignty
of the people can be fairly appreciated, where it can be studied
in its application to the affairs of society, and where its dangers
and advantages may be judged, that country is assuredly America.'

Curtain's going
up; the Greatest Show on Earth is on. The Candidate's in the wings
and the Chairman is ready to introduce him…

u2018Ladies and
gentlemen of this great Party, I give you the man of the hour, the
man of the people, the man who will guide our Ship of State for
the next four years through the storms and perilous waters.

Ladies and
gentlemen, I give you the next President of the United States, the
honorable…'

September
23, 2006

William
Peterson [send him mail]
is an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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