Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?

New York City

Two national political conventions were held in Chicago during the summer of 1884. In June, the Republicans nominated Senator James Blaine of Maine, and a month later, the Democrats picked Governor Grover Cleveland of New York. During the campaign, this hotel trade card predicted that New York would be the swing state in the election. As things turned out, the election was so close that it was decided by two events in the last week of the contest. In fact, one could argue that if Blaine had eaten a “regular dinner,” such as the one advertised below for 25 cents, instead of attending a lavish banquet at Delmonico’s, he might have been elected as the 22nd president of the United States.

Both political parties coined slogans that focused on the shortcomings of the candidates, making it one of the dirtiest campaigns in American history.  In July, it was revealed that Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child years earlier, prompting the Republicans to chant: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” Not to be outdone, the Democrats called attention to the Republican candidate's unethical business deals with the refrain: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the State of Maine!”

On October 29, with the election less than a week away, Blaine experienced two public-relations disasters on the same day. The first one came during a meeting with Protestant clergy at New York's Fifth Avenue Hotel where one of the speakers depicted the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” The sentiment was nothing new—Rum referred to the liquor interests, Romanism to Catholics, and Rebellion to the Confederates in 1861. Blaine did not immediately repudiate the anti-Catholic slur and it hurt him with the Irish Catholic voters.

Blaine-Logan Presidential Campaign Flag (1884)

Making a bad day worse, Blaine later attended a fund-raising banquet at Delmonico’s, giving credence to the claim that the Republicans only cared about the rich. The next day a cartoon titled “The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings” appeared on the front page of the New York World.1 The cartoon, which was an analogy to the biblical feast of King Balthazar, showed Blaine and his wealthy companions dining on political spoils while a poor family in the foreground begged for table scraps.

The political handbill shown below was probably distributed soon after the banquet. It contains a fictitious menu and the names of the “millionaire monopolists” like financiers John Jacob Astor and Jay Gould who attended the dinner. On the back of the card, a political tract ends with the exhortation, “Working men, when you eat your frugal meals, think of Blaine’s Fifty Dollar Dinners…” (Fifty dollars included the campaign contribution; the actual cost of the dinner was about twelve dollars per person.)

Most of the dishes on the political handbill were not served at the banquet. Some of the dishes, such kingfish à la Navarinare and consommé à la Dumas, are fanciful. Delmonico's venerable executive chef, Charles Ranhofer, admired the French novelist Alexandre Dumas and named a chicken dish after him, but not a consommé. (Ranhofer did name one of his consommés after the French novelist Honoré de Balzac.)

The next day, the New York Times reported the actual dishes on the menu, the names of the two hundred guests, and the transcripts of the speeches. Since the details of the event were quickly made public, it seems probable that the handbills were printed in advance. Ironically, the dishes on the real menu below, which resides in the New York Public Library, are more costly than the fictitious ones on the political flyer.

Three vegetables on the above menu also appeared on the handbill—petits pois Français (buttered green peas), harticots verts (string beans), and tomates à la Trévise (stuffed-baked tomatoes). These seasonal dishes were served at other banquets during the month, reflecting a modest attempt to make the handbill credible.2

Of course, it comes as no great surprise that campaign literature can be factually inaccurate. However, the political operatives did not need to know all of the intricacies of Delmonico’s fine cuisine to make their point. They understood that food is a powerful symbol of wealth and class, and it that sense, things have not changed much over the last 125 years. It is still a good idea for politicians on the campaign trail to eat at a local diner, rather than be seen in the company of Wall Street bankers at an expensive restaurant, especially when there are only a few days to go before the election.

The political damage caused by the banquet in 1884 was too great to be reversed. In the end, the trade card was correct in predicting that New York would be the “pivotal state.” Blaine lost the Empire State by 1,047 votes (of the 1,167,003 votes cast) and thus the national election. On November 4, Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat to be elected president after the Civil War, prompting his supporters to add a rejoinder to the taunting campaign slogan: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!"

1. Walt McDougall, New York World, 30 October 1884.
2. The same three vegetable dishes appeared on the menu at the annual banquet of the American Street Railway Association at Delmonico’s on 17 October 1884.