[JPL] Running on Wax Cylinders

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Tue Oct 28 16:44:24 EDT 2008

Running on Wax Cylinders
The 1908 presidential campaign on a then-new medium

Now that we look upon televised presidential debates as a hallowed
institution, it's easy to forget that no such encounters took place prior to
1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon slugged it out on network TV.
After that, 16 years went by before another debate took place. But William
Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft, who ran against one another a
century ago, debated countless times all across the U.S. -- though neither
one of them ever showed up.

Bryan and Taft were the first political candidates to make commercially
recorded campaign speeches on their own behalf, and the records they made
were frequently played in alternation at public meetings in order to create
the illusion of an actual debate. One enterprising nickelodeon operator in
New York City even set up wax dummies of the candidates standing behind a
pair of flag-draped podiums that flanked the door to his store.

Each individual cylinder cost 35 cents, the equivalent of $8 today -- all
for a grand total of two minutes' worth of talk. Yet they are said to have
sold in huge quantities at a time when it was still a novelty for
presidential candidates to make any sort of personal appearances. It was
long thought beneath their dignity to give stump speeches, but Bryan broke
the informal ban when he ran against William McKinley in 1896, embarking on
the very first "whistle-stop" train tour by a presidential candidate, an
innovation that inspired critics to dismiss him as "a human phonograph."
Twelve years later Bryan, whom the Democratic Party had just nominated for
his third try at the White House, agreed to make records for Thomas Edison's
National Phonograph Co., and within a few weeks his Republican opponent, not
to be outdone, followed suit.

Now Archeophone Records, a wonderfully adventurous Illinois-based label that
specializes in exhuming long-forgotten but fascinating sound recordings of
the past, has done historians of American politics an inestimable service by
releasing "Debate '08: Taft and Bryan Campaign on the Edison Phonograph,"
which contains all 22 of the speeches recorded by the two men for Edison in
1908. (You can order it by going to www.archeophone.com.) If you have the
slightest interest in the way your great-grandparents lived, you'll find
this CD hard to resist.

"Debate '08" comes with a well-written, profusely illustrated 79-page
booklet that supplies the historical context for each of the speeches, in
which Taft and Bryan wrangled over such then-hot topics as the annexation of
the Philippine Islands and the right of labor unions to strike. Most of what
they have to say is now of purely academic interest, though once in a while
their comments make you sit up and take notice. It's startling, for
instance, to hear Taft, who at the time was Theodore Roosevelt's secretary
of war, state unapologetically that "Christianity and the spread of
Christianity are the only basis for hope of modern civilization in the
growth of popular self-government," or to listen to Bryan, the Great
Commoner, castigate the evils of American imperialism: "Instead of profit it
has brought loss. Instead of strength it has brought weakness. Instead of
glory it has brought humiliation. It has more than doubled our standing
army, and there is talk of further increase." Plus ça change!

A century after the fact, though, what is more interesting about these
recordings is not what the two candidates say but the way they say it -- and
the way it sounds. Listeners who've never heard a digitally transferred
cylinder recording will be astonished by the clarity with which Edison's
now-antique technology reproduced the voices of both men, who sound as
though they're speaking over a cheap but serviceable cordless phone. Both
men have unglamorous, pancake-flat Midwestern accents (Bryan was from
Illinois, Taft from Ohio) that sound as familiar today as they did in 1908.
Both adjusted without obvious difficulty to the conversational intimacy
demanded by a machine that was designed to be played in parlors, not
convention halls, though Bryan habitually falls into a three-note sing-song
that betrays his long years as a platform orator. Taft sounds more direct,
at times almost offhand.

How did journalists react to this new wrinkle? The Kansas City Star's
reaction was typical: "The records are short and directly to the point. They
deal with the conspicuous issues discussed by the candidates in a simple and
straightforward manner. Nobody wearies of listening to them. . . . they make
a strong and lasting impression on the mind."

Today, by contrast, I expect that the recorded speeches of Bryan and Taft
would strike most listeners as being a trifle on the dull side. No punch
lines, no poll-tested sound bites, no dear-sir-you-cur sideswipes at the
other guy -- just two sober-sided, middle-aged gents talking seriously about
serious matters. Such was the way in which presidential candidates used to
conduct themselves, and in 1908 the phonograph, the newest of new media, was
enlisted to help them do it in the manner to which they were accustomed,
only more efficiently. What a difference a century makes.

Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, writes "Sightings" every other
Saturday and blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com. Write to him at
tteachout at wsj.com.

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