King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 7 Part 3

 King News by Moses Koenigsberg

Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941

Chapter 7

Old Man River (part 3)

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From the biggest local story in its experience, the Globe- Democrat staff turned to the most absorbing national news it had yet covered. The presidential canvass of 1896 opened with the Republican convention in St. Louis. It developed into the most strenuous political campaign in the memory of living politicians. It built a new hate cage in my cerebral back yard. Beside the coop hitherto reserved for the exhibitionist, it raised a twin repository of detestation—the roost of the demagogue. Thereafter the contents of my contempt jugs were divided between two major aversions—the limelight monopolist and the rogue of the rostrum. Demagoguery was rampant in 1896. It staged that year the most spectacular triumph it has achieved in American politics. The presidency of the United States barely slipped through its tentacles.

The currency issue dwarfed all other questions. It menaced both parties with cleavage. The Republican convention was held in June in St. Louis. My assignment was to write “the running story” of the proceedings. Each day unfolded a dramatic chapter. United States Senator Henry M. Teller, of Colorado, led the faction demanding “the free and unlimited coinage of silver.” He threatened a secession if the platform included a declaration for the single gold standard. The Globe-Democrat was one of the staunchest organs of Republicanism. On the morning of June 18, it presented an editorial paragraph that stirred the convention. Its pungency was characteristic of Joseph B. McCullagh, the editor. It read: “To Senator Henry M. Teller and those misguided delegates who accept his leadership—bolt and be damned!”

At noon, was enacted one of the most affecting scenes that it has been my lot to witness in a public assembly. The vote declaring for the gold standard had just been announced. Senator Teller mounted the chairman’s dais. A tense expectancy held the vast convention hall in perfect silence. This eloquent and vigorous leader was at the crossroads of a brilliant career. The pronouncement he had risen to make either would close the gap in his party’s ranks or would widen the breach irreparably. Either it would reinstate him in a commanding position or it would consign him to political oblivion. His speech, in the measured accents of a funeral oration, epitomized his cause. Tears were streaming down his face as he turned to Senator Thurston, the chairman. They clasped hands in token of farewell. Not a whisper arose. Still weeping, Teller made his way down the stairs from the speakers’ stand. Senators DuBois of Idaho and Cannon of Utah followed. Thirty-odd silver delegates fell in behind them. Thirty thousand eyes watched the solemn procession file outward along the main aisle. A spellbound quiet prevailed.

The last of the line of bolters had reached the center of the hall before the strange stillness was broken. Then such a tumult arose as had never been paralleled in a Republican national convention. It started among the delegates. The spectators joined in an uproarious demonstration which blaring bands swelled into pandemonium. The significance of the manifestation was questionable. My theory did not appear in the Globe-Democrat. It was blue-penciled.

The commotion was clearly an instance of autohypnosis en masse. It began with a “whistling for the wind.” The dramatic withdrawal of the silverites had accentuated a sense of party peril. The great auditorium pulsed with a yearning for some omen of reassurance. The yelling of a handful of politicians gave the signal. As the racket grew, it exercised upon the participants a reciprocally mesmeric effect, sweeping them into a clamor-made elation.

It had been a cardinal point of my journalistic program to exclude personal bias or partizanship in civic affairs. But this independence of thought was sorely beset by the campaign of 1896. It was impossible to remain aloof from the high feeling—the all-absorbing excitement—that pervaded every quarter. The withdrawal of Teller and his fellow-bolters from the Republican national convention had been marked with the solemnity of a sacrificial rite. What was the true nature of this question that split in twain lifelong associations; that everywhere turned ordinary discussion into angry strife; that injected a deep-seated acrimony into a national problem?

Out of the confusion and contention a single phrase pursued me. “Silverism is Americanism,” a speaker had proclaimed. It was a captivating thought. Would it stand up as an indisputable fact? The coinage of silver at a ratio of value to be set by the United States government would give America world leadership in fixing and managing the volume and flow of money. Just how that would be accomplished escaped my understanding at the moment.

A full explanation must come at the Democratic national convention in Chicago. The silver delegates would be in overwhelming control. The platform they adopted would be a complete exposition of their cause. The debate that preceded its adoption would resolve my doubts. The Globe-Democrat sent a carefully picked staff to report the proceedings. St. Louis was especially interested. Every likelihood pointed to the selection of a Missourian as the candidate for president. Richard P. Bland—”Silver Dollar Dick”—was without a formidable rival for the honor. More than a third of the elected delegates—over 330—were pledged or instructed for him.

It was my assignment to “cover the floor” of the Democratic convention. Ex-Governor Roswell P. Flower was chairman of the New York delegation. We had struck up a friendship the year before during an interview in his Fifth Avenue mansion. On that occasion, he had descanted on the zest with which he shared the average American’s pursuit of the simple life. A fascinating show of marksmanship with tobacco spittle illustrated his point. He never missed. The white marble appointments of the luxurious chamber remained unstained even though he aimed at receptacles ten feet away. He was as much at home beside a haystack, he assured me, as in a drawing-room. That, he explained, was the secret of his political success. Now, in Chicago, he offered to “show me the ropes.” Moving inward a seat, he gave me his chair on the aisle in the center of the hall.

When permanent organization was effected, William Jennings Bryan sat across the passageway. He had not come to the Coliseum as a regular delegate. He headed a contesting delegation. There were rumors of shady deviousness in the regularizing of the Nebraska contestants. Ex-Governor Flower got the facts for me. The silverite leaders had been doubtful that they controlled the two-thirds majority necessary for the nomination of a presidential candidate. All other considerations were shoved aside to make up the deficiency. It could be covered by seating two contesting silver delegations—the twenty-eight from Michigan and the sixteen from Nebraska. So Bryan became a member of the convention, not by virtue of regular election but by force of a steering committee’s steam-roller.

The chief spokesman for the gold standard was United States Senator David Bennett Hill of New York. He knew his cause was hopeless. He didn’t take the trouble to mount the rostrum. He talked standing beside his seat on the floor. His attire was a compendium of what the careless man may wear. His rumpled vest summarized a recent breakfast. There was a lack of smoothness in his voice, but there was an abundance of it in his logic. It was a masterpiece of reasoning. It convinced me that a sound monetary system must rest on foundations of integrity and sound business. But it hadn’t excluded the possibility that “silverism was Americanism.” That idea was emphasized in the currency plank submitted by the Committee on Resolutions. It read, in part: “We demand the free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold at the present legal ratio of sixteen-to-one, without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation.” There was the phrase that rang the gong of American supremacy—“without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation.”

“Pitchfork” Ben Tillman opened the attack for the silver forces. Great applause accompanied the one-eyed senator from South Carolina as he mounted the dais. No member of the United States Senate pressed more violent claim to attention in that decade than did this favorite son of the Palmetto State. But the electric currents of his oratorical power were short-circuited that morning. He had spoken only a few sentences when a barrage of hissing halted him. “Some of my friends from the South and elsewhere have said that this is not a sectional issue,” he declaimed. “I say it is a sectional issue.” At that point came the first explosion of disapproval. Tillman gesticulated for silence. Several minutes elapsed before he could resume. Then he roared: “The truth is mighty and will prevail. Facts can neither be sneered out of existence nor obliterated by hisses. I present to you some figures from the United States census which will prove that it is a sectional issue and nothing else.”

Not one word that Tillman attempted to say thereafter was audible. The spectators joined the delegates in a deafening storm of remonstrance. It continued until Tillman descended from the speakers’ stand. He had been literally hissed off the platform. Obviously, both factions recoiled from the suggestion of regional conflict. The scars of the struggle between North and South had not yet fully healed. As the debate progressed, a gloom so evident as to be almost audible settled among the silver delegations. The weight of their numbers was offset by the paltriness of their polemics. Their spokesmen were missing the mark.

Hill’s splendid presentment remained practically unanswered. It was supplemented by other gold standard speakers. They did not deny that more coinage meant more cash. They did deny that its mintage assured its distribution. Money, only a token of value, was like the yardstick, the tape-measure, or the scales on the merchant’s counter. No matter how great the multiplication, a mere increase of these metering devices would not affect sales. More business could come only from more buying. And the purchaser, instead of being encouraged, would be deterred by a fluctuating currency. He could never know what he was actually paying for the goods or services he bought. The paramount necessity was a firm anchorage for exchange values. A fixed ratio between gold and silver was fictitious. Money based on fiction could not be sound money.

Most of the sixteen-to-one orators argued with the spirit of men enlisted in a holy crusade. Some of them got lost in clouds of fanatic fervor. These brushed aside “platitudes creaking on the rusty hinges of a sophistry as vicious as it was vacuous.” They spoke for a reorganized humanitarianism. They were inspired by the vision of a new order. “No longer would the extortionate formulae created by monopolists and bankers dominate the world’s economics. Whence came the sacredness that withheld from revision by human endeavor the so-called law of supply and demand? Nature’s unlimited bounty would set aside the fallacies by which the fortunate few had so long misled the misguided many. Untold wealth, pouring from our inexhaustible mines, would stretch beyond the reach of restrictive control the latitudes of American production and consumption.” Only the fiat of the United States government was necessary to introduce this era of fabulous prosperity.

These exciting flights of oratory were too fanciful to convince an earnest inquirer. They failed to ignite the tinder of enthusiasm ready to flame in my mind. United States Senator Jones of Arkansas, chairman of the Committee on Resolutions, took up the argument. Much of his speech was given to repairing the blunder committed by Tillman. Jones sought by dispassionate analysis to disprove any basis for sectional differences. Impatience among the “white metal” partizans was growing audibly. “They’re afraid their horses have foundered,” whispered ex- Governor Flower. “They’re in the dumps. They crave fireworks.” It was at this juncture that William Jennings Bryan stepped to the rostrum. Ten minutes earlier, we had met back of the speakers’ stand. He was pacing to and fro like an actor awaiting his entrance cue. Ordinarily his clothes hung loosely. His usual attire was an unmistakable label of detachment from sartorial care. He wore hand-me-down suits. Now, to the casual observer, there seemed little change except for a degree of neatness. Close scrutiny, however, revealed meticulous attention to every item of his apparel. There were only two outer garments, a black alpaca coat and trousers, but they fitted his splendid physique with a perfection that attested master craftsmanship. An excellent tailor had done an excellent job. An usher, carrying a basket of flowers, brushed against Bryan. The accident disarranged the Nebraskan’s flowing bowknot tie. He seemed actually distressed. As my hand reached out to readjust his neckwear, Bryan grabbed it. “Be sure,” he directed, “that the ends do not come out even.” Then, with a smile of rare intimacy, he added: “Be careful to make it look careless.”

The incident, trifling in itself, recurred later as part of the setting for an historic tableau. It was one of the items evincing the thoroughness of Bryan’s preparation for an unparalleled coup of oratory. Starting without even a regular delegate’s credentials, this man had come to the convention resolved upon its capture. His plans had been worked out in the minutest detail. There was no hint of the outcome when his speech began. At that moment, “Silver Dollar Dick’s” supporters felt more certain than ever of Bland’s nomination for president.

Seldom has so handsome or so impressive a figure as Bryan’s appeared upon the hustings. Fully five feet and eleven inches in height, his 180 pounds were evenly distributed over an athletic frame. An organ-like voice added to the spell of a magnetic presence. The silver delegates straightened up. An air of expectant triumph dispelled their depression. Their David had arisen to smite the Philistines. For me, too, the decisive hour was striking. Now Hill would be answered. Now would be reared the structure of fact and logic from which would float the proud legend, “Silverism is Americanism.” At the beginning an exhilaration came from the exposition of my friend’s magnificent talents. No sleight-of-hand performer ever displayed a fuller bag of tricks. Never did grace of gesture and modulation of tones wheel a more effective vehicle of eloquence. To millions of followers Bryan truly became that day “the peerless prophet of the plains, the foremost orator of the ages.” But as his oration progressed, my elation ebbed.

This was no ascent to the peaks of pure reason. It was a journey through a circus of emotion. It was less a discourse than a painting. It was the picture of an epic struggle, concentrating in the foreground, like a Meissonier canvas, the color and action of a far-flung battle. “. . . It is not with gladness, my friends,” Bryan said, “that we find ourselves brought into conflict with those who are arrayed on the other side. The gentleman who preceded me [ex-Governor Russell] spoke of the State of Massachusetts. Let me assure him that not one person in this convention entertains the least hostility to the people of Massachusetts, but we stand here representing the people who are the equals before the law of the greatest citizens in the State of Massachusetts.”

What did that mean? Why drag in this assertion of equality except to emphasize sectional lines? Would Bryan flout the convention’s repudiation of sectionalism? Would he ignore the indignant demonstration that had driven Tillman off the platform? Would he treat with disdain Senator Jones’s denial of a geographic division? The printed records do not reveal the answer. It was hidden in a masterpiece of histrionic elocution. Most of the delegates themselves remained for a long time unaware of its significance. It was the trick of a mighty conjurer. The magnitude of its political portent obscured the aspects of a colossal farce.

Alphabetic coincidence had massed most of the “sound money” delegations on the east side of the Coliseum floor. The state standards of Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania were grouped together. Around this nucleus ranged fellow-partizans from Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin. Thus, an island of gold was formed in a sea of silver. It could be indicated with a motion of the hand. The arrangement was an ideal background for Bryan’s drama-laden invocation. It enabled him to pantomime what he dare not put into speech. It permitted gestures to invest impeccable phrases with a bitterness of meaning of which the words themselves gave no hint.

Reading of Bryan’s oration will disclose no intemperance in this sentence: “When you come before us and tell us that we will disturb your business interests, we reply that you have already disturbed ours.” Its moderation might well fit into an amicable discussion of trade. As delivered by Bryan, it evolved into an exposition in dumb show of bitter sectional strife. The pronouncement consisted of twenty-three words. Eight were personal pronouns. And each of the eight served as a symbol of regional conflict.

“When YOU come before US”—first an accusing finger pointing to the East and North identifies the gold bloc—the hostile forces of invasion. Next, Bryan’s arms reach out toward the West and South in three successive embraces of the defending legions— the mass of silver delegates on the floor, the throngs in the galleries and the invisible populace behind them. Four gestures have given to five words volumes of unspoken meaning. “. . . and tell US that WE will disturb YOUR business interests”—the outstretched arms are again extended to the good folks of the West and South. The minatory finger is again leveled at the cohorts of aggression from the East and North. “. . . WE reply that YOU have already disturbed OURS”—this marks the climax of the pantomimic drama. The arms that have been lifted with the word we, as if rallying the hosts of free silver, are suddenly dropped. Bryan whirls halfway around. His hand points incrimination to you, the group of gold standard delegates. Then, once more, both arms are raised in the opposite direction in sympathetic salute to ours. Sectional lines have not only been drawn but emphasized by impassioned gesticulation.

The convention hall rocked with applause. The bitter dose that had been spewed forth in the rawness of its true name became delightfully palatable in a versicolor capsule of anonymity. The naked sectionalism of Tillman’s crude candor had been violently rejected. The diapered sectionalism of Bryan’s subtle jugglery was vociferously affirmed. Tillman had been refused opportunity to simplify the problem with economic data. Bryan was acclaimed for saddling it with class dissension. The orotund periods that hoisted the gathering’s enthusiasm to constantly mounting heights drove my own spirit downward.

Was nothing forthcoming to set me right on the currency question? Was there no cogent reason for the claim that silverism was a pillar of patriotism? Bryan’s reply to Hill was the edict of a victorious majority repudiating a vanquished leadership. “In this contest,” said the Nebraskan, “brother has been arrayed against brother, father against son. The warmest ties of love, acquaintance and association have been disregarded; old leaders have been cast aside . . . and new leaders have sprung up to give direction to this cause of truth.” So the answer to Hill was that he could “no longer thwart the will of the Democratic party.” Was the currency riddle, after all, just a pawn of partizan politics? At last came Bryan’s memorable peroration: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Only the zealotry of a multitude aflame with a spiritual obsession could explain the convulsion that followed. The Coliseum seethed with an orgy of fanaticism. Bryan was dragged from the dais by frenzied admirers. They lifted him to their shoulders and carried him up and down the aisles at the head of a hysterical parade of shouting, chanting, laughing and sobbing idolaters. The State standards of the silver delegations were plucked from their fixtures. Marchers bore them aloft like gonfalons waved by crusaders alight with pious ecstasy. This was more than an outpouring of sentiment. It was a mass transfiguration. An evangelized host was advancing to its fate—to face, either in sacrifice or in triumph, the martyrdom symbolized by the crucifix in Bryan’s closing adjuration.

It was an unexampled presentation. It was an awesome demonstration of demagogy at its summit. The higher the uproar grew, the lower the gold standard delegates seemed to sink in their chairs. More than a half-hour passed before Bryan was allowed to resume his seat. Then cool heads rescued him from the mauling and hauling by his frantic idolizers. The delirious hullabaloo continued. The Nebraskan, suffused with perspiration, panted for breath. Touching him on the shoulder, I whispered: “Alabama has just been polled; eleven votes were cast for you.” The news had reached me as a sensation. It was the first definite indication—outside of the Nebraska contingent—that the man from Omaha was “in the running” for the presidential candidacy. Also, it meant a break from Bland. The state first on the roll-call had been claimed for “Silver Dollar Dick.” Bryan received my report without the flicker of an eyelash. “Just half, eh?” He nodded knowingly. The calm assuredness of the answer astonished me. “Did you expect more?” I asked. The Nebraskan glanced at me with a quizzical smile. “There’ll be more,” he said quietly, dabbing his face with a handkerchief.

The murmured statement came as a revelation. It gave significance to several circumstances the real meaning of which had escaped me. There had been a minimum of fortuity in this history-making spectacle. The wizardry of a genius in political stagecraft had foreseen and arranged each incident of a master stroke. A request for him to speak earlier in the proceedings had been pressed by several members of the majority’s steering committee. They had gathered around Bryan while Tillman, angry and flustered, was descending from the speakers’ platform. When the huddle broke up, I slipped across the aisle and crouched beside the Nebraskan. His face wore an expression of grim satisfaction. “What goes on?” seemed to be a pertinent query. “They wanted to change the order of debate,” Bryan replied casually.

My next question evoked a reaction the full import of which did not dawn on me for quite a while. “By the way, when do you speak?” I asked. Bryan turned as if to give me opportunity to study his features. They were set in an owl-like gravity. One of his eyelids fluttered for an instant. It was the nearest approach to a wink that I ever saw him indulge. Clearly, he credited me with a fuller understanding of what was in his mind than I had grasped. “There has been no change,” he said. “I shall close for the prosecution.” That he had prevailed over opposition in his determination to be the last speaker was patent. But that this was only one phase of a major design did not occur to me until after other lines of the pattern presented themselves.

One of these was the Nebraskan’s supreme confidence in his plans. Shown to me first in his comment on the Alabama poll, it was strikingly emphasized twenty minutes later. The incalculable uproar had gone on for more than fifty minutes when I reported to Bryan: “Bland’s managers are trying to force a recess.” “Yes,” he answered, “we’ll accede. It won’t affect the result.” Events ratified his measureless assurance.

When the convention reassembled, it was wholly the creature of Bryan’s slightest wish. His nomination for president came in regular course. Attention was first given to recovering the aspects of a deliberative assembly. Possible charges of a hysteria-made program must be forestalled. Even the first ballot for the presidential nomination was made to serve that end. It showed 231 votes for Bland and 119 for Bryan.

Then, with his presidential candidacy made unanimous by acclamation, Bryan entered upon his thirty-year leadership of the Democratic party. The convention’s stampede to “the dark horse from Nebraska” secured the citadel of my non-partizanship. The oration that won for Bryan its leadership turned me away from the free silver movement. It had stripped from silverism its fleeting guise of Americanism. It renewed and fortified my resolution to maintain complete independence from political partizanship. The campaign that followed, until then unmatched in intensity, produced a number of newspaper crises. Democratic publishers were especially affected. Those unwilling to support Bryan yet eager to maintain party regularity, found themselves in varying degrees of embarrassment. St. Louis presented a unique case. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was owned by Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World. His New York newspaper vigorously advocated the gold standard. His St. Louis newspaper, with even greater vigor, championed free silver.

Charles H. Jones was editor of the Post-Dispatch. He was also a minority stockholder. Pulitzer instructed him to devote the paper to the “sound money” cause. Jones refused. He claimed contractual rights on which he based his course. Pulitzer sued. The litigation ultimately resulted in Jones’s ouster. But adjudication did not come until long after the close of the political campaign. Meanwhile, the Post-Dispatch attracted nationwide attention with the strenuousness of its efforts in Bryan’s behalf. The violence of its partizanship led to a critical situation in the week following the election. At first it proclaimed a Democratic victory. Then, admitting that the vote was close, it counseled vigilance to prevent the stealing of the presidency. Telegraphed to other cities, its claims and warnings produced considerable unrest. Great pressure was brought to persuade Jones to desist lest grave disorder ensue. Not until five days after the polls had closed did the Post-Dispatch cease to claim victory for Bryan.

Despite McKinley’s popular plurality of 567,692, Jones’s contentions were far less fantastic than his critics charged. As many analysts have proved, a shift of only 37,000 votes would have yielded a Democratic majority in the electoral college. If that number of ballots had been changed from McKinley to Bryan in California, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon and West Virginia, the electors would have stood: Bryan, 224; McKinley, 223. A turnover of less than one-third of one percent of the total votes cast would have produced that result.

Startling figures for a single performance of pantomime!

And what a commentary on political polls!

The highest claim of accuracy for pre-election surveys has been a disparity from the actual outcome of between three and four percent. That is a dozen times greater than the margin by which Bryan was defeated.

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