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Rogan's Recollections

(And Occasional Historical Observations)

Campaign Finance in the Good Old Days

Senator James E. Watson (R-IN)


Last week I posted a quotation I found buried in William Jennings Bryan's published memoir of his campaign as the 1896 Democratic presidential nominee.


This week I read former U.S. Senator James E. Watson's memoir, published in 1936, of his 40 years in Congress. As it turns out, Watson knew Bryan and met him a few times.


Below is an amusing recollection of Bryan that Watson shared publicly 85 years ago. It made me wonder if, in this era of presidential nominees and their political campaigns now raising and spending upwards of a billion dollars for a White House run, maybe we should go back to basics and let them adopt Bryan's manner of raising campaign funds for a presidential run!


Watson (then a U.S. congressman from Indiana) wrote that during Bryan's 1896 campaign as the Democratic presidential nominee, Bryan "charged so much for every speech he made and collected the money on the ground before uttering a word. At Connersville in my [congressional] district, he was paid $200, and at Shelbyville, $225. He caused much difficulty at Rushville, my home town. My law partner was John D. Magee, a member of the Democratic State Central Committee from that district, and from him I learned the real inwardness of the situation.


"When the train carrying Bryan reached Rushville and stopped, he failed to appear, and the great crowd which had assembled kept yelling and shouting for him. It was some considerable time before he descended and went to the temporary stand fixed up for his meeting about 200 feet from the railroad. I afterward learned that his regular price was $150 if he spoke from the rear platform of the railway car, and $200 if he was taken to a platform somewhere else. The Democratic Committee had provided $150 on this occasion, and Bryan refused absolutely to go out to the stand unless the other $50 were paid beforehand. After much wrangling and disputation Magee gave his personal check for the extra $50, and Bryan consented to make the shift. So much of his time had been taken up in quibbling [over the $50 balance] that he made a very short speech, much to the disappointment of all who had swarmed out to hear him, and to the deep chagrin of all the Democrats in the crowd.


"My partner told me all this within an hour after the meeting, and he was very irate over the episode.


"Permit me to remark here, in justice to Colonel Bryan, that he always claimed that the Democrats had been able to collect no money for their campaign, that all the wealthy were arrayed against them, and that the only way cash could be raised was in this manner: that is, by his charging for his speeches."--Watson, James, "As I Knew Them" (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1936), 180–181.

By the way, it was Watson who was credited with first uttering an oft-used comment. When Wendell Willkie won the 1940 Republican presidential nomination, Watson refused to endorse the former Democrat (Willkie had supported Franklin D. Roosevelt previously before Willkie changed parties and challenged Roosevelt for a third term that year). When asked why he refused to endorse his own party's presidential nominee, Watson reportedly replied, "I may welcome a whore into my church, but I don't want him to lead the choir on his first visit there."

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