Last night I went on C-Span with Michael Kazin (Georgetown University) to discuss William Jennings Bryan. The C-Span series The Contenders looks at presidential candidates who did not win the office but changed American history. Bryan, of course, is their leading figure in this regard–he ran and lost three times as the Democratic nominee. Only Henry Clay ran as many times as Bryan, and one of his campaigns preceded the major party era in American politics. Bryan is nothing if not the greatest “contender” in American political history.

C-Span came to Lincoln, Nebraska, and we filmed live in the Bryan historic home, “Fairview.” The program is being rebroadcast on C-Span this week and is available online as well.

C-Span, September 23, 2011, The Contenders, from left William G. Thomas, Michael Kazin, Steve Scully

I had never been on live television in this way and the program was 90 minutes with call-in questions from viewers. There was little formal preparation. Neither Kazin nor I knew how this program would unfold. Fortunately, I had been on a panel with Kazin before and we had a good rapport. And the C-Span producers and Steve Scully, the host, were welcoming, professional, and enthusiastic.

It was a blast, until . . . a fly landed on my nose. In the middle of my answer to the second major question directed to me, the fly entered the picture. Not knowing whether to shoo it or not on live television, or whether in fact it was visible to viewers or not, I kept talking while it perched. Later, on the rebroadcast last night, indeed, it was visible to the viewer. So, my first dilemma on the set was whether to shoo or not to shoo. Who is that crazy professor waving his hand and swatting his face, I imagined viewers asking.

Kazin is the leading biographer of Bryan. His book A Godly Hero (2006) is the best account we have of Bryan’s life and politics. Kazin would focus on Bryan’s life and I would contribute from the perspective of 19th century history more broadly.

I do not want to summarize the program here. But as I prepared for this show, the language of 1894 and 1896 struck me as so very much like our political condition in 2011-12. The Populists’ Omaha platform in 1892 included a preamble that began, “we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.” And the Populists rested much of their document on a kind of Constitutionalism and Americanism that today is also widely popular in the Tea Party. Of course, the Populists wanted to use rather than reduce government intervention in the economy–most prominently by calling for government ownership of the railroads. But their larger arguments, that the country was out of whack, that the republic was endangered, that Constitutional solutions were required, have come to the fore again.

More particularly, the current economic crisis has parallels to the 1890s, when a serious, sustained contraction brought down hundreds of railroad companies, banks, and businesses. In the election of 1894 for the Senate in Nebraska and in 1896 for the Presidency, Bryan championed a series of solutions–the graduate income tax, free and unlimited coinage of silver, lower tariffs and excise taxes, and restructuring the railroads. With the Democrats in office during much of the depression–Grover Cleveland was president from 1893 to 1897–the party could easily be blamed for the difficulties.

As a result, when Bryan called for an fairer form of taxation, the income tax, his opponent in 1894, John M. Thurston, could reply that Americans were not interested in income taxes, they were interested in income, period. The Republican message became: prosperity does not depend on extracting income from the rich but on adding income to the workingman.

More broadly, Republicans stressed American jobs for American workers, and protecting Americans from “pauper labor.” They offered a thorough-going Americanism and a determination to preserve American (racial, economic, and social) superiority. “Let other nations take care of themselves, we are not interested in their conditions.” Free silver, they argued, would devalue American stock, make the country more like Mexico than the U.S., more like a second-rate power than a first. The exchange, Republicans argued, would be like trading $1 worth of American wheat for 50 cents worth of Mexican silver.

Thurston became the Republican National Committee chair in 1896 and stumped the country for the party and against his old Nebraska rival, Bryan. “We have the eloquence of smokeless chimneys, of silent spindles, of rotting water wheels, of idle men, of cheerless homes,” he argued. Republicans would put fires in the forges and provide “American employment for American men.”

Today, Republicans are making similar arguments, and the party in power for much of the current recession, the Democratic Party, will face an electorate looking for answers to greater employment, to a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources, to the cozy relationship that special interests have with government. We hear today similar accusations of “class warfare” against the Democratic Party as were leveled against Bryan over a century ago. Bryan suggested that the laboring classes were misled by Republicans, that the corporate interests at the head of that party did not have the workingman’s interest at heart, no matter how red-blooded or full-throated its Americanist rhetoric. But Bryan did so not by calling for class warfare. Instead, he attempted to infuse his language, his oratorical manner, and his policies with sincerity and with equitable solutions. These were not enough in 1896.

I would like to have asked Michael Kazin how his book published in 2006 might be different if he’d written it now after the 2008 crash and the Great Recession.

Even in a 90 minute program we could not cover all of the issues at stake in Bryan’s campaigns, nor their relevance today. The questions we received on the air from callers were so well-informed and interesting and varied that we were able to discuss much more than I anticipated. Watch the show online at C-Span, The Contenders!

We have placed online in Railroads and the Making of Modern America all of the speeches Bryan gave on his campaign swings in 1896. These are searchable. His speech for example in Hammond, Indiana, on October 7, 1896 focuses on the Australian (secret) ballot–the subject of one of our call-in questions.