The Greatest Show on Earth


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