If we could hear George Washington on C-Span every night, would the thrill be gone? Is the historical mystique surrounding historical statesmen at least partly due to the fact that we have never heard them speechifying?
This question is partly answered by "In Their Own Words: The U.S. Presidential Elections of 1908 and 1912" (Marston 52028-2), a fascinating new CD set made under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication.
As Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School points out, most historians state that political use of mass media really started in the 1920s after commercial radio became popular. But in fact, such politicians as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, and William Jennings Bryan made recordings of stump speeches before World War I, which were played widely in American homes. The two-CD selection of these precious relics is an eye-opener in many ways.
Roosevelt, known to some contemporaries as the "mad messiah" for his violent diatribes, reveals a mixed personality on the audio recordings. Captured in his home at Oyster Bay, N.Y., by the Edison Company in 1912, he discourses on subjects like "The Progressive Covenant With the People" and "Social and Industrial Justice" with some of the casual and relaxed charm of Clark Gable. A month later, however, he recorded some speeches in Emporia, Kan., for the Victor Company, doubtless under more stressful conditions. The results are tense, cranky, and contentious, the sort of aggressive display that distressed T.R.'s political enemies: He sounds like a man just on the brink of going out of control.
By contrast, another candidate from that year, William Howard Taft, is the incarnation of calm stateliness. The mountainous Taft sounds as if he had just finished a satisfying steak dinner when speaking on "Popular Unrest" and "A Protective Tariff." No doubt Taft's soothing tones went far in calming the populace during his stints as president (1909-1913) and later as chief justice of the Supreme Court (1921-30).
Possibly the least vocally seductive of these candidates is the election winner of 1912, Woodrow Wilson, who imported the tone of a drab and tedious lecturer from his own past as a university professor. It is hard to imagine his drone inspiring the masses, yet he was reelected in 1916.
As un-Wilsonian as possible is William Jennings Bryan, the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Known in his time as the "silver-tongued orator," his recordings fully live up to this reputation, displaying a great American voice. Bryan sounds like a polished actor, a resonant baritone in the style of Orson Welles. In speeches like "Imperialism" and "The Railroad Question," Bryan's charisma of tone, emphasis, and instinct for rhythm are truly marvelous. Unlike the other speakers who strive for nobility, swearing idealistic fealty to the voting public like Wagnerian knights, Bryan gets down-and-dirty in a speech "Mr. Taft's Borrowed Plumes," in which he accuses his rival of having "imitated the Democrats in using the talking machine as a means of reaching the public."
Fortunately, these ancient speeches, the earliest campaign recordings, were transferred onto CD by master sound producers Scott Kessler and Ward Marston, resulting in surprisingly clear and direct sound quality, considering the time they were made. Marston, a veteran of old recordings, calls some of the Roosevelt discs "unbelievably well recorded. In fact, these are some of the finest recordings of the time." The intimacy of listening to these historic voices at home gives us a sense of knowing these men in a way that historians have generally thought was only possible in a later era.
As such, "In Their Own Words" represents a compelling document of essential interest to American history buffs of all ages.
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