CONNECTIONS: What’s in a slogan?

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By Tuesday, Feb 2 Viewpoints

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the twenty-first century.

The election season is upon us. From the Iowa caucuses to the general election, it is the process with which Americans are blessed and by which Americans are driven to distraction.

To prepare you for the onslaught, here are a few presidential campaign slogans from the past. With 20-20 hindsight both truth and efficacy are clear.


The westward expansion of the United States became an issue in the 1844 campaign of James Polk.

There were the slogans that still resonate. For example “I Like Ike” and “54-40 or Fight.” The last is attributed to the James Polk campaign of 1844. It referred to the desire to expand the United States into California, Oregon, and Texas and the British unwillingness to concede the territory without a fight. Polk won an upset victory over Henry Clay.

The campaign slogan was catchy and effective but not true. Once he was in office, Polk compromised rather than fight. Moreover, some historians dispute that it was a campaign slogan at all but rather a newspaper headline that appeared in 1846 two years after Polk was elected.

If that is true, then what was Polk’s slogan?

“Re-annexation of Texas and Reoccupation of Oregon”?

Not real snappy, but his opponent’s slogan was worse:

“Hurray, Hurray, the Country’s Risin’ – Vote for Clay and Frelinghuysen!”

In 1852 Franklin Pierce was unknown and sought to ride Polk’s coattails into the White House with this slogan:

“We Polked you in ’44, We shall Pierce you in ’52.”

Pierce won so it was effective and there is no way to test the truth without invasion of privacy. Sufficient to say what was politically successful in 1852 would be politically incorrect in 2016.

“Vote yourself a Farm” was the campaign slogan of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. He won and followed through with the Homestead Act of 1862 but that slogan touting western expansion had little to do with cession and war that dominated his presidency. In 1864 his slogan was more on point: “Don’t trade horses in midstream.”

In 1868 the wartime general Ulysses S. Grant’s slogan was: “Let Us Have Peace” and (oddly) “Vote as You Shot,” a direct order from their general to Union soldiers to vote for Grant.

In 1872 that ever-popular play on the candidate’s name first appeared. Ulysses S. Grant’s slogan was: “Grant Us Another Term”.

The opposition also played with words calling Grant’s term in office: “The Era of Good Stealings.”

Attacks on character are nothing new. In 1874 the slogan “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” referred to rumors that Grover Cleveland had fathered children out of wedlock.

When Cleveland beat James Blaine, his supporters ran ads repeating the slogan with a line added: “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”

The first direct reference to “Bread and Butter” politics was in 1900. When William McKinley ran for re-election, his slogan was: “Four more years of the full dinner pail”

All of these slogans were effective in that the candidates won but not all had the same allegiance to the truth. Certainly the fastest turnaround was that of Woodrow Wilson. In 1916 he ran for re-election with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Five months after winning a second term, Wilson entered World War I.

In 1920 candidate James M. Cox opposed Prohibition because he believed it promoted crime and benefited criminals and bootleggers. His opponent, Warren G. Harding adopted the slogan: “Cox and Cocktails.” Cox lost and Harding celebrated his victory by drinking a toast in the White House.

Sometimes there were dueling slogans. In 1940 FDR ran for an unprecedented third term with the simple slogan: “Roosevelt for President”.

His opponent Wendell Willkie countered: “Roosevelt for Ex-President.”

In 1964 Barry Goldwater inspired followers with the slogan: “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right.”

The irrepressible Lyndon Johnson answered with the slogan: “In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts.”

So even if you think “Jeb Can Fix It” or “Cruz to Victory” are cringe-worthy, they are not as bad as “Return to Normalcy” or “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.”

Even if “Yes We Can” ushered in the longest run of gridlock in Washington history, was it any worse than when during the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover claimed “We Are Turning the Corner”?

Settle back and ride the wave of words – sort through as best you can — and regardless – vote.

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