William Randolph Hearst for President

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Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which chronicles controversies over school history since the 1890s.

In the spring of 1904, a letter to a New York newspaper made the case for a new kind of presidential candidate. “The American people—like all people—are interested in PERSONALITY,” the writer noted. “He appeals to the people—not to a corporation. Not even the most venal of newspapers has suggested that anyone owns [him], or that he would be influenced by anything save the will of the people in the event of the election.”

The letter was referring to William Randolph Hearst, who owned several large newspapers himself. This vast media empire was matched only by Hearst’s ego, which was on rich display during his failed quest for the Democratic presidential nomination that summer. “It is not simply that we revolt at Hearst’s huge vulgarity; at his front of bronze; at his shrieking unfitness mentally, for the office he sets out to buy,” one editorialist explained in a rival newspaper. “There never has been a case of a man of such slender intellectual equipment, absolutely without experience in office, impudently flaunting his wealth before the eyes of the people and say, ‘Make me President.’”

Hearst lost the Democratic contest to Alton J. Parker, who would go on to lose to GOP incumbent Theodore Roosevelt. In recent weeks, some Democrats have put forth their own favored media empire-builder, Oprah Winfrey, as a possible challenger to President Trump in 2020. But that was a bad idea in 1904, and it’s a bad idea now. Hearst’s story should remind us of the dangers of promoting media titans for the executive branch, whether you share their ideas or not.

In his early years, Hearst’s politics were so progressive that critics called him a socialist. Elected to Congress in 1902, he put forth bills to establish stronger railroad regulations, an eight-hour day for government workers, and the nationalization of the telegraph industry. But he rarely followed up on his bills or bothered to appear in Congress at all: of two hundred roll calls in his first year, he missed all but four. The day-to-day grind of politics bored him.

Hearst was interested in publicity and—most of all—in power. He burst into the newspaper industry via lurid crime reporting and staged stunts, such as hiring a swim champion to rescue marooned fishermen in the San Francisco Bay; Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner featured pictures of the rescued men drinking coffee around a stove at the newspaper’s offices the following day. He also used his papers to push his pet Progressive causes, including women’s suffrage and the popular election of senators. ...

Read entire article at Lapham’s Quarterly

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