“Can He Make the Donkey Drink”

September 15, 1906

William A. Rogers

“Can He Make the Donkey Drink”

Journalists/Journalism; New York State, Government/Politics; Presidential Election 1908; State Elections; Symbols, Democratic Donkey;

Bryan, William Jennings; Hearst, William Randolph;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption

This cartoon poses the question of whether Congressman William Randolph Hearst, the controversial newspaper publisher, will be able to get the Democratic Party to swallow his brand of reform, which the artist labels "Socialism."  Shortly after this cartoon's publication, Hearst won the gubernatorial nomination at the New York State Democratic Convention in Buffalo (the "Buffalo Donkey Show" in the cartoon).  Here, the dapper Hearst tugs on the resistant Democratic Donkey, trying to get it to drink from the trough of Socialism, while William Travers Jerome, district attorney of New York County and Hearst's leading rival for the nomination, pulls on the donkey's tail from behind.  

The background image (click to enlarge) connects the foreground battle over the New York governorship to the upcoming race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1908.  The Democratic Party's two-time standard-bearer (1896, 1900), William Jennings Bryan, appears as a hobo carrying a bundle marked "1908" as he walks along the "Government Ownership" railroad track toward his Nebraska home.  In November 1906, Hearst lost the gubernatorial election to Republican Charles Evans Hughes, and, in 1908, Bryan went on to capture the Democratic presidential nomination for a third time before losing in the general election to Republican William Howard Taft.

Born in 1863, William Randolph Hearst was the son of George Hearst, a wealthy mine operator, owner of the San Francisco Examiner, and Democratic senator (1886, 1887-1891).  His mother, Phoebe Appleton Hearst, introduced her young son to art and high culture on two tours of Europe.  A rebellious young man, Hearst was ejected from both St. Paul's School and Harvard (in 1885).  After writing for the Harvard Lampoon and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, Hearst became editor of the San Francisco Examiner in 1886.  He transformed the publication from a political organ for his father into a commercial success, modeled after Pulitzer's entertaining, often sensational, World.  

In 1895, Hearst bought the New York Morning Journal to challenge Pulitzer's dominance in the New York newspaper market, and enticed the entire Sunday-edition staff of Pulitzer's World to his Journal by doubling their salaries.  Hearst's publications used plenty of pictures, emotional headlines, and celebrity news to capture the interest of average citizens, thus cutting across economic and ethnic divides.  Critics christened his style "yellow journalism" after the "Yellow Kid" comic strip in the Journal.  Hearst's newspapers championed the cause of the Cuban rebels, and he took credit for America's declaration of war against Spain in 1898.

Like many before him, Hearst hoped to use his newspapers as a base to launch a political career.  He made himself prominent in the news by hosting civic events, usually accompanied by fireworks, and distributing food, coal, and clothing to the poor in New York City.  As this cartoon indicates, Hearst was on the left wing of American politics during the 1890s and early twentieth-century.  He attacked the "trusts" (large business corporations) and supported labor unions, including financing a publication aimed at presenting the union perspective, the Los Angeles Examiner (1903).  He endorsed municipal ownership of utilities and a progressive tax system that imposed higher percentage levies the higher the income rose. 

In 1902, Hearst won election to the first of two consecutive terms in Congress as a Democrat representing Manhattan's 11th District.  Although he introduced progressive-reform bills, Hearst was not interested in the daily routine of lawmaking and set a record for absenteeism, missing 168 of 170 roll calls during his first term.  Besides his controversial positions, Hearst was hamstrung by his simultaneous pursuit of both party regularity--working with Tammany Hall and leading the National Association of Democratic Clubs--and political independence.  In 1904, Hearst was badly beaten in a race for the Democratic presidential nomination by Judge Alton B. Parker.  The next year, endorsed by the Municipal Ownership League, he ran for the New York mayoralty, losing to incumbent George B. McClellan Jr., a Tammany Democrat.

Hearst's campaign for governor unofficially began in February 1906 when he addressed the Independence League (formerly the Municipal Ownership League), claiming that the American government was no longer responsive to the people, but to a predatory financial class.  Members responded enthusiastically with applause and donations.  Hearst officially kicked off his gubernatorial campaign on Labor Day (which he urged be designated a national holiday).  On September 11, the Independence League nominated him for governor on a platform of public ownership of utilities, railroad rate regulation, direct election of U.S. senators, and similar "progressive" reforms.  

Worried that an independent Hearst candidacy would spell defeat for the Democratic Party, Tammany Hall urged the state party to nominate the maverick congressman and publisher.  Despite his rhetoric against "boss rule," Hearst said he would accept the nomination.  At the Democratic State Convention in Buffalo ("Buffalo Donkey Show" above) on September 25, Tammany managers worked against District Attorney Jerome and other declared candidates by refusing to seat 60 anti-Hearst delegates and other duplicitous tactics.  Convention chairman Thomas Francis Grady, a state senator, admitted, "this is the dirtiest day's work I have ever done in my life."

During the fall campaign against his Republican rival, Hughes, Hearst tried to soften his radical image by insisting that he wanted to return America to its Jeffersonian principles.  Since he was a Tammany candidate, he also toned down his rhetoric against the Democratic machine.  On October 25, a massive labor rally for Hearst was held at Madison Square Garden.  Two days before, President Theodore Roosevelt had appointed New Yorker Oscar Solomon Straus as secretary of commerce and labor in hopes of wooing the labor and Jewish vote to the Republican camp.  Everyone knew that a Hearst victory would make him a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1908.  

Both sides ran a tough and vigorous campaign, but on November 6, 1906, Hughes edged Hearst, 52%-48%, to become New York's governor-elect.  Hearst, the only Democrat on the state ticket to lose, congratulated "the bosses on their insight in defeating me."  Interpreting his personal defeat as evidence that the Democrats and Republicans were corrupt machines of the wealthy, Hearst tried to create a viable national alternative, the Independent Party, in 1907-1908, but failed.  In 1909, he again ran for mayor of New York City, finishing last in a three-man race, and the next year lost an independent bid for lieutenant governor.  

Although Hearst never again ran for office, his eccentric politics continued to be manifest.  He vocally supported Russia's communist revolution of 1917 and the Soviet state in the 1920s, but became a fierce anti-communist in the 1930s.  He expressed admiration for fascist dictator Benito Mussolini of Italy, but tried to dissuade Adolf Hitler from his anti-Semitic policies in the early 1930s.  Hearst wholeheartedly backed Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, but turned against him in 1935 when the Democratic president's policies became more radical, and the publisher thereafter supported Republican candidates.  Having long since alienated his original working-class audience, Hearst died in 1951.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Can He Make the Donkey Drink”
May 29, 2024

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