Bryan oratory brought down the house, but garnered few votes

By Chris Bragg

At the tender political age of 36, Williams Jennings Bryan already had a national reputation as a stellar public speaker. But being dubbed “The Boy Orator of the Prairie” by newspapers did little to improve his chance of political success. A former congressman representing Omaha, Bryan was only the second Democrat elected to Congress from sparsely populated Nebraska, which had never voted Democratic in a national election.

In other words, Bryan was a very dark horse in the race for the presidential nomination as the 1896 Democratic National Convention began in Chicago.

And the setting in which he would deliver his speech at that convention offered difficult conditions for any speaker. The cavernous Chicago Coliseum had a footprint as big as a Gothic cathedral’s. But a ceiling only 65 feet high made for bad acoustics in an era before the public address system.

Bryan, fortunately, was able to maneuver his speech nearly to the end of the convention, and, as he waited nervously and prayed, the crowd was lulled by two hours worth of monotone speeches delivered by a series of dull, droning speakers.

Finally, it was Bryan’s turn, and he leapt up 20 stairs to the stage and was greeted by the deafening applause of thousands.

“The crowd acted like a trained choir,” Bryan later recalled. “In fact, I thought of a choir as I noted how instantaneously and in unison they responded to each point made.”

Bryan, dressed in a black alpaca suit and baggy pants, blew the preceding speakers away. Even without a public address system to rely upon, Bryan’s “superbly modulated voice could reach the incredibly large number” and his “perfect enunciation made him understandable,” according to Charles Morrow Wilson’s biography of Bryan, The Commoner (Doubleday, 1970).

Bryan ended his 20-minute speech with what would become one of the most famous refrains in American history, in which he addressed the day’s big issue, bimetallism.

“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns,” he said, his voice rising in a crescendo. “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Bryan then stretched out his arms parallel and tilted his head slightly, as if hanging from a cross, standing motionless for several seconds while the crowd sat in awed silence before erupting in a deafening roar.

“The floor of the convention seemed to heave up,” reported the New York World. “Everybody seemed to go mad at once … the whole face of the convention was broken by the tumult — hills and valleys of shrieking men and women.”

Bryan would win the nomination the next day on a fifth ballot.

During the Gilded Age, when great oratory was indispensable in politics and religion, and viewed, even, as a form of entertainment, Bryan was considered the greatest orator of his time. And, in some ways, the scene from the 1896 convention is reminiscent of the chemistry between Barack Obama and his audiences as the Illinois senator’s soaring populist rhetoric releases the passion of an adoring crowd.

Obama, coincidentally, rose from relative obscurity — as a U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois — through his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. And Denver will have hosted nominating conventions for both of them — Obama in 2008, and Bryan in 1908, although Bryan didn’t speak at that convention. Presumptive nominees didn’t begin attending Democratic conventions until 1932.

In the century that has passed between Denver conventions, the style used by great orators has evolved, as John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, recently noted in the New York Times.

“A century and change ago, William Jennings Bryan was considered the orator of the age because of his florid vocabulary and inverted syntax, which today would sound pompous and insincere,” McWhorter writes. “It was Martin Luther King who made the black preacher’s cadence a lingua franca.”

“[Obama] is channeling the most narcotic form of oratory in modern America for whites as well as blacks: a preacherly style of speaking rooted in black American tradition.”

Bryan’s speaking style also was influenced by preachers of his time, though in Bryan’s case the preachers were white evangelicals. In particular, celebrity preachers such as Henry Ward Beecher and Dwight L. Moody, who rose to prominence in the late 19th century in large urban churches, paved the way for Bryan’s brand of populism, which was framed squarely in the terms of religious fervor.

“Beecher and Moody had their theological differences, but they fashioned a common style — relaxed, sentimental, open to all — that resembled that of a barnstorming politician,” writes Michael Kazin in his definitive Bryan biography A Godly Hero (Knopf, 2006).

But great oratory doesn’t necessarily lead to election. Bryan lost to Republicans three times — in 1896, 1900 and 1908.

The possibility of a connection between soaring rhetoric and political defeat has not been lost on Sen. John McCain, this year’s presumptive Republican nominee.

“I believe people are interested very much in substance,” McCain told USA Today in early June. “If it was simply style, William Jennings Bryan would have been president.”

Bryan was dogged throughout his career by the perception that he was all style and no substance. The famous Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White observed of Bryan’s famous 1896 convention speech that, “His oration was a college sophomore’s assemblage of platitudinous assertions, but his delivery won where thought and composition would have left him stranded.”

Sen. Hillary Clinton leveled similar criticisms at Obama during the long fight for the Democratic nomination, and now such critiques are coming from the political right.

In his syndicated column, Jay Ambrose of the Independence Institute, a Colorado free market think tank, argues that if radio or television had existed in Bryan’s day, the Nebraskan would have won the presidency. Many voters never heard Bryan speak, however. And when they read his speeches in the newspaper, the majority of voters found they disagreed with Bryan’s opinions, Ambrose argues.

With cable news, radio and Web sites like YouTube, Obama’s speeches can simply be heard.

“Will many give thought to the content of his speeches after the moment’s exhilaration has passed?” Ambrose asks of Obama’s speeches in his column.

It’s clear Bryan recognized the contrast between his written and spoken words. In July 1908, during Bryan’s third run for the presidency, he tried to counter the problem, recording 10 brief speeches at his home in Lincoln. He would speak into a phonograph, which would record the sound into a thick stack of vinyl or a wax cylinder 6 inches high. The technology had been invented by Thomas Edison two decades before and was still quite primitive; recordings could go no longer than four minutes, and outside noise marred the audio quality.

“But no listener could mistake his oratorical skill,” Kazin writes. “His pitch would have been perfect for radio. Alas, broadcasting was still more than a decade in the future.”

Sales figures for the recordings are unknown; it’s unclear if they had any affect on the 1908 campaign.

It’s been noted by Bryan biographer LeRoy Ashby that by the time Bryan was nominated for a third time at Denver’s convention in 1908, his speeches had, in fact, become more substantive.

“The campaign was memorable as well because of Bryans’ discussion of the issues. He did not simply harangue the opposition nor engage in rhetorical fluff,” Ashby writes in Champion of Democracy (Twayne, 1987). “His speeches generally shunned bombast in favor of serious, detailed assessments of the nature of problems and of the proposed solutions.”

There were still moments in the speeches of self-effacing levity, for which Bryan had always been known. For instance, Bryan would compare his failures as a presidential candidate to a woman who was so fat that she had to leave a streetcar backward. The woman tried three times to get off, Bryan explained, but each time she was helped on again by someone who thought she was entering instead of leaving.

During that 1908 campaign, Bryan would sometimes deliver 20 or 30 speeches a day.

“We would throw cold water on his face to wake him, and he would get up, go out to the platform and give ‘em hell, then tumble back into bed to sleep until the next performance,” recalled one campaign aide in Wilson’s The Commoner.

Despite his efforts, Bryan would end up losing his third and final bid for the presidency to William Howard Taft, the hand-picked successor to the wildly popular Teddy Roosevelt.

Bryan lost badly — by 1.2 million votes.

Nonetheless, the legacy of Bryan’s rhetorical greatness lives on. And with his three presidential runs, containing sometimes 30 speeches a day, combined with his constant paid “Chautauqua” speaking in between campaigns, it was thought at the time of Bryan’s death in 1925 that he had addressed the American people more times than any politician in history.