Society and the Spectacle

FDR grasped the potential of radio in 1936. Ike made pioneering use of television in 1952 (as did his running mate Richard Nixon). JFK triumphed on live TV in 1960. Ronald Reagan, a veteran screen performer, exploited the televised photo op in 1984. Bill Clinton recognized the power of MTV. With the rise of social media, Barack Obama had YouTube, Hillary Clinton has, in a negative sense, e-mail, and the master of reality TV Donald Trump is defined by . . . Twitter?

It’s sobering, at least in this election cycle, to think that the candidate with the greatest affinity for newfangled communications technologies has consistently won the American presidency—something that Charles Musser’s informative history Politicking and Emergent Media suggests was ever thus. As another savant once said, the medium is the message.

Musser, a Yale professor of film and media studies, recounts four consecutive presidential elections—Benjamin Harrison versus Grover Cleveland in 1888 and 1892, and William McKinley versus William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and 1900—over a period spanning the Gilded Age, the Panic of 1893 (and the ensuing depression), the Spanish-American War, and the beginning of the Progressive Era. Against a backdrop of industrialization, urbanization, and mass immigration, Musser discusses the campaigns’ respective media savvy, mainly their use of daily newspapers, early cinema, and the pre-cinematic stereopticon. Developed in the mid-nineteenth century, the stereopticon was a magic lantern constructed with two lenses, which allowed it not only to project images but also to create smooth transitions from one picture to another. It was distinguished from earlier such devices in its use of photographic slides, rather than hand-painted ones, as well as a more powerful form of illumination, hydro-oxygen limelight, rather than an oil lamp.

Like the stereopticon, Politicking and Emergent Media has two lenses—somewhat awkwardly aligned. One focuses on the history of political image-making in the tradition of Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates’s The Spot or Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s Packaging the Presidency (both of which appeared during the Age of Reagan). The second lens is more narrowly trained on a much-debated question within the field of cinema studies: When did cinema become “cinema”—a true mass medium? The first approach is straightforward, impressively researched, and full of original insight. The second is unusually self-conscious: Musser takes pains to spell out his personal contributions to defining the parameters of “early cinema,” and much of this material could have been relegated to footnotes. Nonetheless, Musser’s description of the stereopticon as a significant form of proto-cinema is convincing as well as central to his history. The apparatus provided news bulletins and information. And beginning with the 1872 presidential campaign, which pitted New York Herald editor Horace Greeley against the incumbent, Ulysses S. Grant, it supplied election returns.

Such projections were often located outdoors, typically against building exteriors, and thus part of the urban scene, attracting crowds of nocturnal strollers. Musser describes these “bright, colorful images” in terms suggestive of the animated billboards in the movie Blade Runner, as “appealing to those moving through the city who might stop and enjoy the witticisms and cartoons projected onto the wall of a building—and then move on.”

Grover Cleveland campaign poster, 1888. Library of Congress.
Grover Cleveland campaign poster, 1888. Library of Congress.

As political-campaign tools, the stereopticon projections were at first comparable to the buttons, banners, and posters designed to promote candidates. This changed in 1888, when the Republicans made extensive and apparently effective use of what amounted to a stereopticon infomercial, created by Judge John L. Wheeler, against free trade, one of the campaign’s major issues. Wheeler spoke as the stereopticon projected images. His lecture, “The Tariff Illustrated,” was, Musser writes, a “new and valuable weapon” in the Republicans’ campaign arsenal—one that, in its modernity, theatricality, and efficient use of the image, might even counter the Democrats’ heavy reliance at the time on supportive newspapers, most significantly Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. The Republicans successfully deployed “The Tariff Illustrated” in 1888 to help Harrison defeat the incumbent, Cleveland; they would use it again during the Harrison-Cleveland rematch of 1892, when, according to Musser, the party employed six stereopticon lecturers, and an estimated 350,000 people saw some version of “The Tariff Illustrated” in the New York City area alone. (This time, however, the Democrat won.)

The 1896 campaign saw other technological developments. Ohio governor William McKinley challenged the insurgent “boy orator” William Jennings Bryan. An eloquent populist, Bryan was nominated for president on the fifth ballot of the Democratic convention, largely on the basis of his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, in which he proposed an inflationary silver-based currency to ease debt and extend inexpensive credit, particularly for farmers. The conservative McKinley, who preferred to campaign at home, addressing his supporters and the press from his front porch in Canton, Ohio, took advantage of the new long-distance telephone to communicate with partisans across the nation and even to monitor the Republican convention in St. Louis that nominated him. In response, Bryan pioneered the whistle-stop campaign, traveling around the country by railroad to deliver his speeches from the train’s rear platform.

Early on, Republicans had a commercial interest in communications technology. Musser points out that “most of the companies working with new media had Republican ownership” and that Republican campaign strategy was to align candidates with the entertainment industry. (Although this is no longer the case, it’s instructive to remember that, with few exceptions, America’s movie studios were administered by Republicans at least through the 1960s.) Former president Harrison, along with McKinley’s younger brother Abner, invested in the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, an early producer of motion pictures, and Abner McKinley was instrumental in having films made of his brother the candidate.

The brief actualités McKinley at Home and McKinley and Hobart Parade at Canton, Ohio had their New York premieres at Oscar Hammerstein’s new Olympia Music Hall less than a month before the election. The other seven short motion pictures on the program included one in which Joe Jefferson, the most celebrated of American comic actors, performed a scene from his vehicle Rip Van Winkle; another, Empire State Express, taken from a train going sixty miles per hour, had an impact that evidently overwhelmed the McKinley films and rendered them anticlimactic. Cinematic spectacle trumped personality, but it still granted McKinley a measure of reflected glory. Comparing Empire State Express to “the advancing prow of the battleship that concluded Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin,” Musser suggests that the train film also provided a metaphor: “The Empire State was moving full speed ahead for McKinley.” It was. McKinley did carry New York, the Northeast, and much of the Midwest.

Bryan was featured in a film as well—Vitascope’s Bryan Train Scene at Orange depicts the candidate as he delivers a whistle-stop speech. However, as Bryan’s supporters failed to organize the sort of hoopla that Republicans generated around the McKinley movies, Train Scene seems to have been received with a shrug when it was shown in New York theaters a week after the McKinley movies. Democrats were also slow to create and distribute recordings of Bryan’s speeches, taking the cheaper route by circulating them as printed pamphlets. (In his coda, Musser compares the 1896 campaign to that of 2008: Both McKinley and Obama took advantage of new technology, while Bryan and McCain were suspicious or clueless.)

Musser generally eschews McLuhanite theorizing, but it’s striking that, as he points out, the 1896 campaign placed a great, perhaps unprecedented emphasis on personalities—however blandly they were media enhanced. For all Bryan’s charisma as a speaker, however, he does not seem to have resonated as anything more than the embodiment of a particular political position. It is the Republicans’ 1900 vice-presidential nominee, Theodore Roosevelt, who must be considered the first real star pol. Two weeks after getting Bryan on film during his 1900 rematch with McKinley, the Chicago-based distributor William Selig labored to obtain comparable campaign footage of the dynamic but evidently diffident Roosevelt, already a stereopticon star for his Cuban exploits during the brief Spanish-American War.

The stereopticon lecture was revived as a campaign option in 1900; it was used far more by Republicans than Democrats, and it offered a new narrative. Here Musser steps into the future. Pro-McKinley lectures offered “a healthy dose of racism and American exceptionalism” in recounting a tale of “good Americans risking their lives to bring freedom, resource development, and lessons of responsible government to third-world peoples—an ideological predisposition that would be mobilized again and again during the twentieth century and beyond.” Indeed, this narrative would become a major strain in the American Western as well as war movies, revealing how much campaigns and cinema both serve to inform a prevailing political mentalité. Occasionally, American elections can be articulated in terms of binary-opposite movies—as with the left- and right-wing Hollywood super-productions Spartacus and The Alamo in 1960, or the comparably apocalyptic independent blockbusters Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ in 2004.

Early on, Musser notes that political theater rivaled theatrical entertainments. Presidential elections negatively affected theatergoing, in that potential ticket buyers attended campaign events instead. The notion of choosing politics over dramatic art is almost quaint. One might say that, with the evolution of motion pictures, the development of television, and the rise of the Internet, these competing forms of theater have long since merged. The subtext of Politicking and Emergent Media is the degree to which American electoral politics has been entwined not just with the mass media but with what we call show business. In that sense, we have, along with Donald Trump, crossed another Rubicon.

J. Hoberman is the author of Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st-Century Cinema? (Verso, 2013).