Media debacles are a recurrent nightmare for presidential candidates. Yet few have ever confronted a more devastating publicity firestorm than the Republican candidate James G. Blaine did on a fateful day in October 1884.

Not even Mitt Romney -- who is now facing the blowback from some arrogant remarks that he made in private at a fundraiser with high-rolling supporters -- has had a day quite as damaging as the one “the Plumed Knight” (as Blaine was known in the press) suffered in the final days of his presidential campaign.

Blaine’s troubles started when he rejected the advice of the New York state Republican Party chairman and traveled by railroad to New York City to make a series of high-profile public appearances in the final critical week of his campaign.

Running neck-and-neck with Democrat Grover Cleveland, Blaine had to win the state. To help fill his campaign coffers, Blaine agreed to attend a sumptuous fundraising dinner, organized by 200 prominent Republican supporters, on Oct. 29. The venue was the ballroom at Delmonico’s, a swank restaurant in the financial district. Among the guests were several of the richest, best-known and most politically connected businessmen in the country, including the Navy contractor John Roach and the financier Jay Gould.

A Bad Day

Blaine’s day began badly when he took part in an impassioned rally hosted by several hundred Protestant clergymen -- all Republicans -- at which a Presbyterian minister denounced the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.” The slur soon went viral, outraging Irish Catholic voters who might otherwise have sat out the election.

The worst was yet to come. The Delmonico’s dinner played into the hands of journalists primed by a long and bruising campaign to accentuate Blaine’s financial ties with Wall Street. Most devastating of all, it furnished New York World illustrator Walt McDougall with the theme for a blistering cartoon that would run the next day on the front page of one of the city’s biggest newspapers.

McDougall’s cartoon -- titled “Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings” -- portrayed Blaine as a supplicant at the beck and call of plutocrats who dined on “monopoly soup,” “patronage” and “lobby pudding” while a humble laborer and his family looked on, begging for crumbs.

“Mammon’s Homage” screamed the headline that accompanied the cartoon: “Millionaires and Monopolists Seal Their Alliance.” McDougall’s work was an instant sensation. Democratic activists enlarged it into posters that they plastered on walls all over the city and on placards that the party faithful held aloft at rallies.

The cartoon had clearly hit a nerve. Blaine’s refusal to make a full disclosure of past financial dealings troubled many voters, including some influential Republicans, while party insiders, including many businessmen, feared his full-throated endorsement of government policies they assumed would hasten economic consolidation. Opposition to monopoly was a potent rallying cry in 1884, and the New York World had been editorializing for weeks that a Blaine presidency would widen the gap between rich and poor.

Tipping the Balance

The election was one of the closest in U.S. history, and Cleveland won New York by a mere 1,200 votes. Many political observers, including the World’s editorial staff, credited McDougall’s cartoon with tipping the balance, making it one of the most effective visual appeals in the annals of electoral politics.

McDougall himself would later reminisce that Blaine had confided to him that the World might well have been right. “If Blaine had eaten a few more swell dinners,” lamented one bitter Republican strategist, “and had a few more ministers call on him, we should not have carried a northern state.”

Ironically, McDougall had unsuccessfully pitched the idea for a similar cartoon linking Blaine with Wall Street fat cats to the editors of the magazine Puck several months earlier. Following the Delmonico’s dinner, McDougall recycled some of the images from his failed project to draw “Royal Feast,” helping to explain the speed with which he readied it. (From start to finish, the project took a mere two hours, or so recalled a fellow World staffer who helped bring it to life.) This also explains why some of the business leaders McDougall featured -- including William H. Vanderbilt, with his signature mutton chops -- found their way into the cartoon, but not Blaine’s dinner.

Had McDougall’s cartoon run earlier in the election cycle, it might not have been as devastating. In politics, timing is everything, and the appearance of “Royal Feast” less than a week before voters went to the polls helped frame the 1884 campaign in a way that Republicans found impossible to rebut.

Black-and-white cartoons would soon become a staple feature of daily newspapers, ushering in a new age of image-driven politics. “Royal Feast” set the stage, demonstrating how one journalist could help tip an election by crystallizing popular hostility to the corrupting nexus of big business and politics. It could also offer lessons for today’s big-money campaigns: If Blaine were alive today, he would certainly feel Romney’s pain.

(Richard R. John is a historian who teaches in the doctoral program at Columbia Journalism School. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this post: Richard R. John at rrj2115@columbia.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net