THREE years out of four the average Canadian thinks he understands his American cousins so well that he’s qualified to explain them to the rest of the world, and vice versa. But every leap year the American eagle sprouts a gay new set of tailfeathers and soars off in a dizzy spiral that leaves even Canada baffled—a United States election campaign.
Canadian reporters still have one advantage over British; they don’t have to translate the language. (Imagine trying to explain in a short cable to a six-page English newspaper why “favorite son” means a candidate with absolutely no chance whatsoever.) But even though we use the same words they don’t always mean the same things. The Canadian observer spends half his time thinking Canadians are stuffy for not doing it American style and the other half thinking Americans are crazy.
For instance, Canada’s accustomed to “demonstrations” at political meetings. Any Montrealer remembers the parades of college students (in the 1930s they could be hired for fifty cents apiece) marching around the big hall chanting “Halte-là, halte-là, halte-là, Monsieur un tel est là” and waving placards with the local hopeful’s picture on them. Notody who attended the 1948 Liberal convention will ever forget Paul Martin’s pipe band marching, to Martin’s agonized dismay, right into the middle of Mackenzie King’s farewell speech.
These pallid imitations make it harder, not easier, to understand the demonstration which is part of the sacred ritual of American politics. It lasts anywhere up to three quarters
of an hour, comprises fifty to one thousand people, fills an auditorium with a solid wadding of unintelligible sound and means little or nothing so far as the voting strength of the applauded candidate is concerned.
At 2.08 one Friday morning last July I found myself in the unlikely role of a demonstrator for General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, who is not my favorite statesman. Thanks to this lucky accident I have several glimmers of comprehension which are denied to the spectator, however assiduous.
You may recall that when the ballots were cast later in the day General MacArthur got four votes. It should not be assumed that only four people, or four delegates plus one mislaid reporter, marched in his demonstration. At a rough guess I’d put the figure at around six hundred.
One hundred and sixty-five of them (an agreed quota among all contenders) were hired demonstrators earning an honest five dollars apiece. General MacArthur’s wore sleazy imitations of his famous peaked cap, clutched outsize corncob pipes between their teeth, but still looked as if they had been recruited on Skid Row. They were followed by a dense mob of delegates, almost all of them still wearing Taft buttons but screaming, “We want MacArthur.”
I got caught up in this millrace by buttonholing a member of the Bob Taft Delegates Club, to enquire why, or if, he wanted MacArthur. We hadn’t proceeded ten short paces before someone stuck into my hand a banner proclaiming that “The People Want Mac,” and I carried it around while the Taft man, an amiable
Continued on page 58
Backstage at Ottawa
Continued from page 5
old soul, explained that they thought they might need MacArthur on the second or third ballot in case their real favorite failed to make the grade.
The band was playing Oklahoma an Oklahoma delegate had nominated MacArthur i and Old Soldiers Never Die. and everyone appeared to be singing or shouting at the top of his voice, though it was hard to tell which. Suddenly, instead of being acutely embarrassed, I began to enjoy myself immensely.
Most of us by that time had been sitting down and listening to speeches for five or six hours, until we were physically stiff and mentally stifled. It was a tonic to be able to march and yell: it was irrelevant that we were yelling on behalf of a man for whom nobody in the demonstration cared
The Democrats, t fortnight later, self-righteously forbade the use of hired demonstrators and limited each jamboree to twenty minutes but neither rule made any real difference. The demonstrations were as phony as ever: I happened to notice that fully half the delegates from Washington State (identifiable by their green hats) marched
and screamed for all four maior candidates. It was fun, that’s why.
Practically everything in American politics is fun in a campaign year —enough to make a Canadian reporter green with envy. Two dozen Retarían types from Buffalo, N.Y., turned up in red-and-white striped pants, blue jackets, star-spangled waistcoats and top hats, and marched around behind a fife-and-drumming trio costumed as the Spirit of Seventy-Six. Their fellow clubmen from the Canadian shore of Lake Erie wouldn't have been caught dead in such a get-up. which is one reason why Canadian political events are as dull as pease porridge cold.
On the other hand there is a touch of grim determination in all this foolery, too. They take it seriously in a way. Factions got into fist fights in the hotel lobbies of Chicago, trying to push each other out of range of the TV cameras. Large staffs stayed up all night grinding out press releases that nobody read and planning propaganda devices that nobody noticed. Dedicated souls wandered around in outlandish costumes, often wearing beards that must have taken months of cultivation. i One wore a cotton imitation of a London bobby’s uniform and carried a placard ‘‘Thomas Jefferson for President.” Beautiful girls with intent expressions dashed to and fro on missions of great urgency. Everybody, from candidates down to office boys, soon began to look exhausted.
In addition to being exhausting it
is expensive, fabulously so. No political j operation however puny seems capable j of operating from anything less than a whole floor of a first-class hotel. Everybody seems to need a public relations staff, a speech-writing staff, a board of strategy and another of tactics, and an astonishing profusion of pretty girls doing nothing veryspecific. These decorative creatures are probably volunteers, in the main, but even the volunteers must have their expenses paid and expenses ran pretty close to two hundred and fifty dollars a week all told.
People who Eire operating on this scale are not fooling, even in their foolery. They feel that they are playing for keeps, for high stakes, j And this probably accounts for an! other feature of American politics which is startling to all foreigners, even to Canadians—the quite remarkable bitterness and the prevalence of personal
In Canada these tactics would be suicidal. At the Conservative convention in Winnipeg in 1942, the one that “drafted” John Bracken from the Progressive Party to the one he christened Progressive Conservative, the nominating speaker for John Diefenbaker ventured to make one mild personal remark. He suggested the delegates ought to vote for a man who had been a Conservative yesterday, was one today and would still be one tomorrow no matter who was nominated.
The jibe was perfectly true, perfectly fair—and perfectly self-defeating. As the words were uttered a cold hush fell upon the assembly. The speaker realized he had made a serious gaffe and his embarrassment was visible. Whatever chance Diefenbaker may have had of getting the nomination disappeared.
By American standards this mild dig was practically flattery. Here they don’t mince words. Fellow Democrats j proclaimed Adlai Stevenson a stooge for scheming and conniving machine politicians, a wavering weakling who didn’t know his own mind, and a sly ! hypocrite who was shrewdly playing j hard to get. Fellow Republicans labeled ! Dwight D. Eisenhower a mere Charlie i McCarthy for Tom Dewey 1 who had been their candidate twice before but whose name was now a synonym for everything detestable ' ; Eisenhower was also a stooge for Truman, a thinly disguised Democrat functioning as a Trojan horse, and a generally worthless character. The keynote Republican speech was delivered by the only man west of the Iron Curtain who has really disliked Eisenhower for years, and he showed his sentiments clearly. Other featured speakers were men who have spent the past few years fighting, with some success, against everything Eisenhower was trying to do in Europe.
Altogether, what with the noise, the frenzied foolery, the colossal expense and the harsh language, an American campaign does have some of the aspects of an alcoholic binge. It is great fun up to a point. It tends to get out of hand. It leads to unintended extremes of utterance and conduct, and it is followed by a mood of fatigue and ; depression.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.