Bryan sweeps 1908 Denver DNC; now for the vice presidency
Veep an afterthought on convention's last day
By Chris Bragg
All Thomas Gore had to do was casually mention the name of Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan in a speech, and delegates at the 1908 Democratic Convention in Denver broke into an 87-minute frenzy. The blind U.S. senator from Oklahoma never regained control of the floor as 15,000 men hooted, hollered and danced on press tables, singing “Dixie” until 3:40 a.m.
The delegates finally adjourned at 4 in the morning of July 10, the last day of the convention. Very few of the power brokers found time for even a few hours of sleep, however. Instead, they hunkered down in a room of the Brown Palace Hotel to discuss the convention’s last major order of business: selecting Bryan’s running mate.
A century ago, the decision on the Democratic vice-presidential nomination didn’t seem to weigh as heavily on the party as, say, whether Barack Obama’s running mate should be Hillary Clinton. One 1908 delegate asserted he’d support anyone who was chosen, so long as he “wasn’t a train robber or a trust magnate.”
During the days leading up to July 10, some 60 to 100 men reportedly had expressed interest in the job. Some took their campaigning more seriously than others.
W.C. Conrad of Montana bet the other candidates $1 million that he would run the strongest in Hawaii. Col. J. Hamilton Lewis, a candidate from Chicago, remarked that, “Many a man gets himself mentioned for vice president here so he can go home and run for the legislature.”
Together the candidates jokingly formed the “Amalgamated Protective Association for Vice-Presidential Candidates,” and drew up a set of rules to “show to our loathsome opponents and to the world at large that a man can be a candidate for vice president and still remain a gentleman.”
Still, it seemed odd to some political observers that the party brass hadn’t given the question of the vice presidency more thought, considering that Bryan had had the Democratic nomination sewn up for weeks.
Bryan himself was not at the convention — nominees didn’t start coming to Democratic conventions until 1932. In those days, the party, not the nominee, was considered all-important, and the nominee’s presence was considered a potential distraction from the business at hand.
Nor were Bryan’s preferences for the vice-presidency of primary significance. The initial decision would fall, instead, to a man far more important to the party than any mere presidential nominee: Tammany Hall boss Charles Murphy, head of New York City’s political machine.
Murphy — a man so closemouthed he was often referred to as “The Sphinx,” or “Murphy the Silent” — hadn’t been able to reach a decision before July 10, however. More than 20 Tammany Hall pols had jockeyed for the nomination, and no one had emerged as an obvious choice.
“New York is floundering like a grampus in a strange tank over its duty of trotting out a vice presidential candidate — one that will please both Tammany and Bryan, ornament the ticket and produce the coin,” observed the Chicago Tribune.
Delegates who had heard rumors of Murphy’s quandary, would “as often as they can catch him abroad … proceed to switch him in a corner and pump him full of the wonders of their respective heroes,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
Among the delegates pushing a favorite were Henry Moore Teller, who had served as Colorado’s first U.S. senator, and Congressman John Shafroth, great-grandfather of current 2nd Congressional District candidate Will Shafroth.
Teller and Shafroth “did great work on Murphy” on behalf of Rep. Charles A. Towne, of New York, according to the Chicago Tribune, but in the end, “the taciturn Murphy took this private Towne ovation without turning a hair.”
As soon as Murphy punted on the decision, it fell to a Who’s Who among the Democratic Party elite.
The powerful group that gathered at the Brown Palace in the wee hours of Friday, July 10, included former Indianapolis Mayor Thomas Taggart, chairman of the Democratic National Committee; Democratic National committeeman and Cook County pol Roger C. Sullivan, of Illinois; former Missouri Governor and Secretary of the Interior David R. Francis; James C. Dahlman, “perpetual mayor” of Omaha, Neb.; former Massachusetts congressman and future ambassador to Greece Fred Williams; Brooklyn Borough President Bird Coler and his fellow Tammany Hall leader Lewis Nixon; and U.S. Senator and Houston Post editor-in-chief R.M. Johnston, of Texas, among others.
Two leading candidates already were out of the running. Judge George Gray, of Delaware, who had come in second to Bryan for the presidential nomination, had left town saying he would not accept the vice presidential nod. Gov. Joseph W. Folk, of Missouri, another frontrunner, had told the papers the day before that he wouldn’t accept the position, either.
Of course, those 20 candidates from Tammany Hall were still in the fray. But according to the Rocky, “it soon became apparent that there was no chance of the delegates from the Empire State uniting on any of them unless it became impossible to find a satisfactory man elsewhere.”
The only other Eastern candidate up for consideration was Archibald McNeil, of Connecticut. One delegate had predicted that, “If Bryan makes the choice, you can bet your end simoleon that he will take Archibald McNeil of Connecticut.” (“Simoleon” was slang for a dollar.)
McNeil, however, was deemed “not strong enough to help any ticket” by the party brass.
And so, the party brass abandoned the Eastern seaboard.
Francis, the former governor of Missouri who had been one of the main promoters of the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, was looked upon favorably, but his state already was considered safe for Democrats. Rep. Ollie James, of Kentucky, was considered a strong campaigner, but, in the end, Kentucky also was considered too safe to squander the vice presidential prize on.
So, partly by a process of elimination, the group unanimously selected John W. Kern, who had run unsuccessfully for governor of Indiana in 1900 and 1904. The selection pleased Taggart, the party chairman and Kern’s fellow Hoosier.
Indiana was considered a key swing state in 1908. In addition, Kern had defended Bryan’s position on railroads and was well-liked by the white unionists in his state.
“Aside from the editors of certain New York dailies, every faction of the party was at least nominally on board,” writes Michael Kazin, in his Bryan biography, A Godly Hero (Knopf, 2006).
Just before 9 a.m., Francis telephoned Bryan, who was in Lincoln, Neb., to get his views on Kern. Bryan replied that the selection was “entirely satisfactory.”
Francis and Bryan were longtime friends. At a banquet honoring Bryan held in Indianapolis in 1907, Kern had stated that because he was a “poor man” he could never aspire to the vice-presidential nomination. Bryan had replied that if Kern was “too poor to live in Washington, a corner of the White House would be reserved for him.” That statement had helped kick off speculation about Kern’s candidacy for vice-president.
Kern, a lawyer, was described by the Rocky as a man of the people, in the mold of Bryan.
“John W. Kern is a plain man,” wrote W.F. Conway. “No doubt he wears a dinner coat on occasions, but the chances are that he sits down in a business suit with his family when they dine. He is absolutely without frills, and probably wouldn’t even shave his whiskers off even if they were a barrier to be elected to office.”
The Rocky reported that Kern smoked, but hadn’t had a drink in 17 years.
“I’ll admit it was a long dry spell for a Democrat to go through, but I’m on the water wagon to stay,” Kern told the Rocky.
Many delegates were unaware of the early morning coronation of Kern as convention convened on July 10, and nominating speeches for other candidates began.
The Rocky and Denver Post offered very different takes on the delegates’ reactions when word spread that Kern already had been chosen.
“Again they made it unanimous, spontaneous, uproarious,” reported Conway in the then-pro-Democratic Rocky. “Once more, and loudly, did the Democracy of the nation shout for a candidate. And again they sound the clarion call to victory.”
“There was no enthusiasm over the common choice,” countered the Post, which at the time had a reputation for sensationalism. “The hall was full of favorite sons who had hoped to hear their names linked with much language and applause, but it was not to be so. It was just Kern, Kern, Kern, and there was just about as much joy over the prospect as may be found lingering about a morgue.”
After it became clear Kern had won the vice-presidential nomination in Denver, a telegram was sent to Kern’s wife in Indianapolis. She immediately sent a telegram back.
“I had hoped you would give me the news that Mr. Kern had not been nominated,” she wrote. “I, of course, appreciate the honor conferred upon Mr. Kern, but I cannot understand what conditions at Denver have arisen that would cause him to have accepted the nomination.
“Mr. Kern has injured his health in past campaigns by his activity, and as he means vastly more to me than any political honors, I am sincerely sorry, although I suppose I should not say so.”
The convention ended following Kern’s selection, and many delegates headed out for sightseeing tours of the mountains. Kern, meanwhile, took a special train to Lincoln with Bryan. The lead story in news reports that day was that Kern would, in fact, have a place to live in Bryan’s White House if they won the election.
“If I am elected president and Mr. Kern is elected vice president, I shall not be afraid to die,” Bryan later added, “because I shall feel that the policies outlined in the platform, which I shall endeavor to put into operation, will be just as faithfully carried out by him as they would
Supporters were confident that two-time gubernatorial loser Kern would help bring Indiana to the Democratic side, along with Bryan, who had lost twice as his party’s presidential nominee.
“Bryan and Kern will sweep Indiana like a Nebraska prairie fire,” William M. Moss of Linton, Ind., told the Tribune.
It was not to be, however — Bryan would end up losing Indiana despite Kern’s presence on the ticket. And Bryan would badly lose his third and final bid for the presidency to William Howard Taft.