The first sound bites

The presidential campaign, 1908-style. Hear early phonograph recordings.

When Bryan speaks, then I rejoice.
His is the strange composite voice
Of many million singing souls
Who make world-brotherhood their choice
— Vachel Lindsay, American poet, 1915

RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE IN 1908 , including audio of early phonograph recordings.(Flash Required) A. Nandy

William Jennings Bryan was rarely at a loss for words. His impassioned oratory spellbound congressmen during his two terms in the U.S. House and thrilled thousands of voters during the presidential campaigns of 1896 and1900. But during his third run for the White House, 100 years ago, Bryan had trouble speaking in the intimacy of his own home.

“Mr. Bryan seemed a little nervous when he first started, much more so, he said, than he ever felt in facing an audience of ten thousand people,” Harold Voorhis recalled. Voorhis, an agent for the National Phonograph Company, was partly responsible for the candidate’s discomfort: He had brought a phonograph into the library of Bryan’s house in Lincoln, Neb., to record some of his speeches, old and current. “Considering that his words were to be reproduced all over the world in perhaps a million homes, … I thought he showed remarkable composure,” Voorhis wrote in the July 1908 Edison Phonograph Monthly.

Whether for profit or prestige, the 1908 campaign was the first in which presidential candidates recorded their own voices for the mass market. “We now have Records by Mr. Bryan and Mr. Taft, so that no matter how the November election may result, we shall have Records by the next President,” an advertisement in the September 1908 Edison Phonograph Monthly exclaimed. “Now, for the first time, one can introduce the rival candidates for the Presidency in one’s own home, can listen to their political views, expressed in their real voices, and make comparisons.”

The sound-bite era was born.

The recordings by Bryan and Taft were played at rallies, in concert halls and at local Edison dealerships. Political clubs, depending on their leaning, featured Taft or Bryan speeches — or, if they wanted to appear impartial, both. In New York City, an enterprising businessman set up a penny arcade featuring a Bryan-Taft “debate.” Mannequins stood before a phonograph that spouted the candidates’ voices.

“You could draw a genealogy from the televised presidential debates of today straight back to these” recordings, says record historian Patrick Feaster of IndianaUniversity in Bloomington. “An awful lot of political speechmaking nowadays is mediated; the idea of someone simply addressing a live audience [as] the target audience …really doesn’t seem to pertain much anymore.” The 1908 recordings “are really the first step in that direction.”

The phonograph was invented in 1877. By the early 1890s, it was being used in arcades and exhibition halls. As early as the 1896 presidential campaign, elocutionists and actors had recorded imitations of presidential speeches, replete with canned applause and other sound effects. An 1896 catalog for the U.S. Phonograph Company, Feaster and IndianaUniversity folklorist Richard Bauman note, listed what it called recordings of speeches by Bryan and his opponent in that campaign, William McKinley, but all were re-creations voiced by others.

“The concept of the on-the-spot sound bite, immediate gratification, news as it happens, didn’t exist,” says Tim Fabrizio, a phonograph collector and coauthor of several books about the early history of the phonograph. “What you had was the idea of re-creating things through various musical and sound-effects presentations — the shelling of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese war, the Battle of Manila the surrender of the Spanish fleet.…[I]t was considered that the phonographic art was such as to require a different quality, a different pedigree.”

But in 1908, says Fabrizio, “all of a sudden you had the real people sitting before the recording horn.” The “speaking phonograph,” as Edison called his invention, was already 30 and was no longer an expensive plaything restricted to an exhibition hall or the homes of the very rich. Now that inventors had come up with a wind-up, spring-driven model, housewives no longer had to worry about smelly batteries that could leak acid on the parlor rug.

“The year 1908 marked the first time Bryan had run for the presidency since the phonograph had become a common household object and since the mass production of phonograph cylinders had become practical,” says Feaster.

“The phonograph had suddenly come of age, it had gotten to the point where it can be the dispenser of reality, not just fantasy,” notes Fabrizio.

Bryan made his recordings in May, before he had secured the Democratic nomination. Some of the speeches he recorded were already well known — such as “The Railroad Question,” a plea not to wrest regulation of the railroad industry away from the federal government and give it to the states; or “Imperialism,” a shortened version of a talk on the dangers of the U.S. waging war against smaller countries, such as the Philippines. “Imperialism” was first delivered during the 1900 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

However, later that year, for the Columbia Phonograph Company, Bryan recorded a brand-new speech, entitled “Mr. Taft’s Borrowed Plumes,” specifically criticizing his opponent.

For those first recordings made in May 1908,Bryan declaimed into the recording horn in his library as a needle cut grooves on a hollow, rotating wax cylinder. “Some workmen who were engaged in repairing a porch annoyed us with their hammering and Mr. Bryan went out to tell them to let up for awhile. He did not want to arouse their curiosity so told them he was talking into the phone. For all that, we heard a few stray knocks later on and one or two of these were caught by the Phonograph in his speech on The Tariff Question,” Voorhis wrote.

“When our work was at last finished on Saturday, the library floor looked as it had been visited by a snow storm, so thickly was it covered with wax shavings,” Voorhis said. “I made apologies to Mrs. Bryan, which she assured were entirely unnecessary, and as quickly as I could get my things together I was on the way back to Orange, N.J., with the Records.”

After the Democrats nominated Bryan that July, the Edison company began promoting his recordings heavily. “No one who has ever heard Mr. Bryan speak will fail to recognize all of the wonderful charm of voice and manner by which he is famous,” noted an ad for the Edison records placed in a monthly magazine, Youth’s Companion. “‘Where does Bryan stand on the Railroad Question?’ is being asked on all sides. He has been so widely, and in most cases, erroneously, quoted. … This Record comes as his personal word on this important subject.”

Reaction to this novelty might be called mixed. Some political cartoons portrayed Bryan as a blowhard who loved nothing better than his own voice. The public, Feaster says, was still used to thinking of the phonograph as an instrument for entertainment, not serious contemplation.

Taft didn’t immediately agree to do his own recordings. He may have waited to take the plunge until after he and his advisors saw how Bryan’s records were received, Feaster speculates. But he ended up making his own 12 cylinders to answer Bryan’s 10.

“Judge Taft has consented to make several short speeches into talking machines for reproduction,” the New York Times wrote on August 4, 1908. “As the process of making a phonograph record is somewhat different than a making a campaign speech from the back of a car platform or from a front porch, Mr. Taft today found Mrs. Taft laughing at him as he did a bit of rehearsing for the real records.”

Walter Miller, manager of the Edison Recoding Department, along with an assistant, George H Werner, visited Taft at Hot Springs, Va., just after he had delivered his acceptance speech before the Republican convention in Cincinnati. “On Monday at 3 p.m. we got busy on the Records and by 5 o’clock had four completed,” Miller and Werner wrote in the September 1908 Edison Phonograph Monthly. “At 5:15 p.m. Mr. Taft went for his regular horseback ride and gave us an appointment for that evening at 9. At that time he dictated two more speeches, which were all he had expected to make. He had become deeply interested by this time, however, and said, ‘I’ll give you another.’ He kept ‘giving us another’ until we had twelve altogether.”

“The last of the Records was finished at 12 o’clock Monday night. We caught the first train out on the following morning and were at the factory with the Records Tuesday night, when the work of moulding the duplicates was begun.”

Both Taft and Bryan, Fabrizio says, took care to speak seriously and in measured tones — the opposite of the curtain-chewing style that presidential re-enactors usually adopted for recordings.

Listening to Bryan’s records, “I was a little taken aback that they weren’t more emotional,” says Bryan biographer Michael Kazin of GeorgetownUniversity. “But then I thought that if you’re sitting in a studio with a big horn in front of you, it’s not the same as speaking to 10,000 people. It’s pretty hard to do.” Nevertheless, Kazin adds, Bryan “has a very sort of self-assured, confident voice. … He seems like the voice of authority.”

In contrast, “Taft was a slave to his scripts,” says Feaster. “In the Edison cylinder ‘Roosevelt Policies,’ he starts at the beginning of his published speech accepting the nomination and reads it word for word until he runs out of time,” he notes.

But there was one exception, notes Feaster. Taft’s “Irish Humor,” a travelogue about the Irish and his visit to Ireland 25 years earlier “was an unexpected bonus for the company as he got swept up in the moment with his enthusiasm for the phonograph.”

As the presidential campaign progressed, the candidates made their usual stump speeches, greeted crowds at train whistle stops and had their talks excerpted in the newspapers. In the end, Taft trounced Bryan, garnering 321 electoral votes to 162 for Bryan. It was Bryan’s worst — and final — presidential defeat, with Taft winning the popular vote by 8 percentage points and gaining the support of nearly all the northern states. (Taft got 51.6 percent of popular vote vs 43 percent for Bryan; in actual votes Taft got 7,678,335 votes compared to Bryan’s 6,408,979.)

No one has studied what effect the recordings had on the outcome, Feaster says. But it was clear that these artifacts were establishing a place in the culture. The Columbia Phonograph Company also made cylinder recordings of Taft and Bryan, and the Victor Talking Machine company made the first records of the candidates on disk. And the recordings of both men remained in the limelight —Taft because he won, Bryan because of his continuing popularity as a great orator.

In the case of Taft, the American public could now listen to the speeches of a real-live president, as the Edison Phonograph Monthly took pains to note in March 1909. “In a few days more, Edison dealers will have something absolutely unique in the history of the world, namely, phonograph records made by the ruler of a great nation,” the publication reported. “A year ago, the mere suggestion that it would be possible to buy records made by the President of the United States would have been received with incredulity and yet, in a few days, they will exist and may be had at a price within the reach of the poorest.”

Further evidence that the campaign speech recording had staying power came in the 1912 campaign. Although Theodore Roosevelt had refused to make any recordings while he was president from 1901 to 1909, he recorded several speeches in his effort to win a third, nonconsecutive term.

Furious that Taft — whom Roosevelt had picked as his successor in 1908 — had not followed through on efforts to preserve parkland and continue trust-busting, TR ran on the Progressive Party ticket. On the recordings, says Fabrizio, Roosevelt “doesn’t sound at all like the blustery guy we imagined him. … He had a very patrician accent; he had a stutter as a child, and you can still hear the hesitation in the records in a number of instances.”

Taft discovered one of the disadvantages of being so indelibly on the record. In some of his 1908 recordings, he had clearly portrayed himself as an ally of Roosevelt. “Two selections, ‘Roosevelt Policies’ and ‘Function of Next Administration,’ do little but praise Roosevelt’s anti-trust work and assure the listener that Taft will follow respectfully in Roosevelt’s footstep,” says Feaster.

“By 1912 he may have wished he hadn’t said some of those things,” Feaster says, because the recordings “were turned against him.” When that year’s votes were counted, both Roosevelt and Taft had lost to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.

Bryan, coincidentally, served as Wilson’s secretary of state, resigning in 1915 to protest Wilson’s handling of the sinking of the Lusitania. Bryan made a series of evangelical records in the early 1920s, which sound more impassioned than his 1908 recordings, according to biographer Kazin. But by then, the phonograph was no longer a novelty. It was about to be superseded by another media upstart — radio.

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The phonograph’s early political career

Years before the phonograph was successfully used in the 1908 presidential campaign, politicians had jumped on the recording device’s bandwagon.

William Jennings Bryan himself had made a few records during his 1900 presidential campaign, but for legal reasons, the records were never widely circulated and existing copies have yet to be found, notes Patrick Feaster, a record historian at the University of Indiana in Bloomington.

In 1902, Cassius O. Smith used a phonograph instead of appearing in person at events during his bid for Chicago’s 31st ward. The Chicago Tribune did not view the effort favorably. “Afraid to Address a Room Full of Voters,” the paper proclaimed. Smith defended the practice: “I don’t use a phonograph exactly because I am too bashful to make a speech myself, but it’s a useful thing to have at the meetings you can’t attend.” Smith lost the election by 46 votes.

Two years later, Senator-elect Isidor Rayner of Maryland imagined an elaborate scheme, involving phonographs and moving pictures.

“In the background could be put a moving picture screen, and on that the orator could be depicted making all the appropriate gestures as the phonograph ground off the speech, he having been photographed at the time he was talking into the phonograph,” Rayner said. “Think of the wear and tear on the orator’s voice — that would be saved, to say nothing of the discomforts of travel. He could stay quietly at home with his family, and the public would have a better time that it does under the present system.”

In his bid for the governorship of New York in 1906, media king William Randolph Hearst attempted to put this notion of a phonograph stand-in into action. Hearst’s campaign combined a record he had recorded at a New York City studio with images of a speech the candidate gave at an upstate fair. Hearst tested the record-silent movie at several locations throughout New York state.

On October 29, 1906, in Kingston, N.Y., one of Hearst’s no-shows did not go well, according to a reporter. “The real Hearst had been promised as a star attraction for six months. Instead he sent inanimate eloquence and moving pictures to the faithful Leaguers. These were unsatisfactory substitutes.… There were several embarrassing pauses while records were changed.”

The next evening, in another city, drew a smaller crowd.

A correspondent for The New York Times wrote that the manager of a London music hall expressed interest in obtaining the Hearst. The manager “is particularly desirous of obtaining a record of the speech in which Mr. Hearst called [his opponents] Mr. Parker a cockroach, Mr. Jerome a croton bug, and Mr. Towne a rat.”

Some detractors called it “a sort of Hearst vaudeville show.”

Hearst not only lost the election but was sued, Feaster notes, for failing to pay his bill for the phonographs.

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