You wouldn’t know it now in the age of bland, marketing-driven Presidential campaign slogans like “Change You Can Believe In”, “Yes We Can”, “Putting People First”, “Building A Bridge To The 21st Century” and even going back a few decades to“Morning In America”, “Nixon’s The One”, and “A Kinder, Gentler America”, but there was an age when stump sloganeering was one of the great Dork Arts of American politicking.
The gold standard, and the bridge between catchy and the anodyne, focus-group-tested slogans of today was, of course, Dwight Eisenhower’s “I Like Ike”.It’s tight, alliterative, and fits nicely on a button or bumper sticker, and is perfect for a campaign jingle. It’s far too whimsical for a serious, 21st-century Presidential campaign, though. If he were running today, “I Like Ike” wouldn’t make it out of YouTube and a two-minute mention on Anderson Cooper 360.
But the further you travel back down the road of Presidential contests of days gone by, the slogans become both more inspired and pithy, and hackneyed and cornpone.
In 1840, William Henry Harrison and John Tyler hit an enduring home run with“Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too”, which sang the praises of the hero of the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, Governor Harrison, against Tecumseh and his men. In “Tyler, Too”, it acknowledged that…well, that he had a running mate.
Not to be outdone in the Tecumseh’s War sweepstakes, Martin Van Buren’s Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson, who had actively cultivated the legend that he himself had vanquished the famous chief, rolled out his own awkward slogan,“Rumpsey dumpsey, rumpsey dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh!”
With the Whigs circling the drain, the Democrats were feeling their oats in 1852 and their shot at their first victory since James K. Polk in 1844, and charged out of the gates with the muscular, vaguely-threatening, “We Polked You in ’44, We Shall Pierce You in ’52!”
In the 1936 match between Kansas Governor Alf Landon and incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Democratic copywriters went for an economic and direct, “Remember Hoover!” for FDR and Garner’s re-election bid in 1936, and also came up with a dandy of an uppercut with “Sunflowers Die In November” (a reference to the upcoming election and the official state flower of GOP nominee Alf Landon’s Kansas).
The GOP sloganeers were pulling out all the stops for Landon, with mixed results. “Defeat the New Deal and its Reckless Spending”, “Let’s Make It A Landon-Slide”, and “Life, Liberty, and Landon” were tepid and forced at best, and “Let’s Get Another Deck” (in a play on FDR’s “The New Deal”) was only slightly more creative, and their most memorable being “Off the Rocks with Landon and Knox”.
Pity poor up-and-coming GOP star Styles Bridges, though. The New Hampshire governor was a party wunderkind during the 1936 Republican convention and much talked about for the Vice Presidential nomination. He may have had a good chance were it not for the Dems licking their chops and praying to their god for his selection, so they could unleash the brilliant, unforgettable, and surely devastating, “Landon-Bridges Falling Down”.
Therein lies an important factor in considering any campaign slogan: Gaming out how the opposition could turn your slogan back on you. Democrats in 1964 took nuke-them-all-and-let-God-sort-them-out GOP standard-bearer Barry Goldwater’s “In Your Hearts, You Know He’s Right” and turned it into “In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts”. If the McGovern campaign had had a little more of a ruthless streak to them, they could have cited America’s enduring Communist paranoia and used Richard Nixon’s overtures to Red China to turn his “Now More Than Ever” into “Mao More Than Ever”.
Some of the most memorable slogans of all time have in fact come from the opposition. In 1884, Democrat Grover Cleveland called his Republican opponent, “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the Continental Liar from the State of Maine”, capitalizing on accusations that Blaine had profited improperly from legislation he promoted which benefited two railroads in which he held bonds. Some of Blaine’s notes on the issue surfaced with Blaine’s writing on them urging, “Burn this letter.”
When it was revealed during the election that Cleveland had possibly sired an illegitimate child while he was a lawyer in Buffalo, Blaine’s supporters unleashed their own sarcastic barb at Governor Cleveland: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”After Cleveland defeated Blaine in the general election, Cleveland’s supporters amended Blaine’s pejorative one-liner to read, “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”
The Whigs in 1844 didn’t win many points for creativity, but they did have a valid question in their tagline, “Who Is James K. Polk?”. They were less effective with the awkward, “The Country’s Risin’ for Clay and Frelinghuysen”.
President William Howard Taft’s Vice President, James Schoolcraft Sherman, passed away just days before his ticket was trounced in the 1912 election. A shame, both in his death and in their resounding defeat, in that he could have run in 1916 on the cryptic but inspiring cheer that followed his 1912 re-nomination for the Vice Presidency, “Eins, zwei, drei, vier! Sherman is the winner here!” Admittedly, though, that may not have played so well in 1916 with the U.S. about to go to war with Germany.
Don’t expect any such sloganeering flourishes this year, no matter how much we like the Germans now.