- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2000

It's Labor Day, and for some history buffs, the formal start of the presidential campaign in this election year.
But in reality, the tradition of kicking off the campaign with an event in some important labor-movement city is only about a half-century old.
The reasons are several. First, there was no Labor Day to celebrate for a good portion of American history. The holiday is only a little more than 100 years old.
The first celebration was in New York City in 1882; other cities slowly followed so that by 1889 the first Monday of September was observed by Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati and Kansas City.
The holiday was largely organized and celebrated by union members eager to show off their numbers. But even when Labor Day became a national holiday after Congress acted in 1894, its relation to presidential election campaigns was still remote.
Again, the reasons were several. The union movement that members were eager to promote would be illegal in many states, and not until the National Labor Relations Act became effective in 1935, and the Supreme Court upheld its validity two years later, would the American union movement get a big boost.
Another factor minimizing Labor Day was the reality of the meeting dates of the national political party conventions and the necessity to begin campaigning immediately thereafter in the pre-television and pre-airplane days.
Until 1940, for instance, both the Democratic and Republican parties held their national conventions in June or earlier, occasionally in July, and only once in August (the Democrats in 1864).
Only in recent years, beginning with the Republicans in 1956, was August a favorite month for the national confab, making the first Monday in September a good starting time for campaigning before union members in certain key industrial states.
Of course, there were other factors prior to the legal acceptance of unions that moved presidential candidates to focus on specific voters. The railroad's rise was one, although it wasn't until 1896 that a presidential candidate, Democrat Williams Jennings Bryan, used it to its full potential. Bryan traveled 18,000 miles by train and, in some 600 speeches, spoke to about 5 million Americans (the total population in that year was about 71 million). Still, he lost the election.
Railroad travel, however, became the modus operandi for candidates so much so that Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 neared Bryan's record in miles traveled, giving a record 1,000 speeches.
In 1948 Harry S. Truman followed FDR's example, with 356 speeches during 31,700 miles of campaigning.
Other developments that gave presidential candidates the opportunity to campaign to more voters in less time were the microphone and radio.
Although the rudimentary aspects of the microphone were present by 1875, it wasn't until the early 20th century that politicians with weak voices could compete thanks to this new technology with thunderous voices, such as Bryan's, which made him a presidential contender in a record three election years.
The radio, first used in 1928 in the contest between Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat Al Smith, was important and helped to elect Hoover because Smith's New York accent wasn't well-received. But it was television that was the most revolutionary invention in terms of speed campaigning.
Even more than the airplane, which permitted candidates to visit every state in the Union an ill-advised strategy that helped to cost Richard Nixon the election against John Kennedy in 1960 television would become the campaign standard.
The breakthrough year for television campaigning was 1952. In this campaign pitting Democrat Adlai Stevenson against Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, television not only punctuated the campaign trail for the first time, but saved GOP vice-presidential nominee Richard Nixon. In his defense on television of his being the beneficiary of a "slush fund," Mr. Nixon turned the accusations into a sympathetic portrait of a modest family with a little dog, Checkers, that had been given the Nixons and was greatly loved.
Most importantly, television in 1952 helped to bring forth the largest vote in history up to that point. In 1948, about 48 million Americans voted in the presidential election. In 1952, more than 61 million took part, the largest increase ever in presidential election history. And although American voter participation would wax and wane over subsequent presidential contests, television's role is still critical.

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