This Is The First Political Commercial, And It’s From 1912

Woodrow Wilson goes hard against Taft in this, the first known moving image political ad.

The Republican National Convention is going on, and all I'll say about that comes in the form of this tweet from my friend Mr Beaks:

Anyway... with the GOP convention we're about to really move into political season, and considering how active it's been this year that's saying something. Mud's gonna get slung, people gonna get slandered, politicans gonna lie and it's going to be ugly.

It's easy to think that this is a new development, a byproduct of our modern world, but the truth is that American politics have always been disturbing and nasty. In the 1800 election Thomas Jefferson paid off columnist James Callendar to call John Adams  “a hideous hermaphroditical character." Davy Crockett accused Martin Van Burn of being a crossdresser. And in 1964 the LBJ campaign released a children's coloring book that included images of opponent Barry Goldwater in a KKK robe.

In actuality the nastiness has lessened over the years. In 1912 Teddy Roosevelt took the stage at the GOP convention and called William Howard Taft - formerly Teddy's VP and the then-president - a cornered rat*. That probably won't be happening at the GOP convention this week (they speak in code words now. Maybe someone will say that Obama has been 'monkeying around' or something). 

1912 is the year of the film above; it's the first known campaign commercial. Paid for by the National Democratic Committee, what's really striking about the ad is how it addresses issues we're still arguing about. The ad shows Taft as a special interest puppet, while it paints Woodrow Wilson as a man of the people. It's the 99% vs the 1% a hundred years ago. 

Politics is a reflexive thing, and as Trygve Throntveit, U.S. historian and Wilson scholar at Dartmouth College, says "This is an example of how politics has long been evolving along with, and in response to, new media... This was quite extraordinary to release a film like this and in some ways it just goes to show that we always have constantly adapted our politics to changes in society and culture."

From nasty handbills to silent films to YouTube attack ads, it's all one long, ugly continuum that links us back to the bastards and backstabbers who founded this country**.

By the way: Wilson, who embraced the new technology, won the election. Many say that it was Roosevelt splitting off from the GOP and thus splitting Taft's vote that won the election, but just as TV won Kennedy the 1960 election and the internet won Obama the 2008 election, I wouldn't discount the impact of the film.

Thanks to Alex Jacobs for the link.

* Teddy split off from the GOP after this convention and founded the Progressive, aka Bull Moose, Party.  They ended up with a governorship in California but dissolved by 1918.

** And I say that as a huge, huge fan of the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary generation.