One of the most effective of our campaign speakers was General Bruce, of Syracuse, N. Y. The general had practically only one speech, which was full of picturesque illustrations, striking anecdotes, and highly wrought-up periods of patriotic exaltation. He delivered this speech, with necessary variations, through many campaigns. I was with the general, who was Canal commissioner when I was secretary of state, on our official tour on the Canal.
One night the general said to me: "Mr. Blank, who has a great reputation, is speaking in a neighboring town, and I am going to hear him." He came back enraged and unhappy. In telling me about it, he said: "That infernal thief delivered my speech word for word, and better than I can do it myself. I am too old to get up another one, and, as I love to speak, I am very unhappy."
This illustrated one of the accidents to which a campaign speaker is liable. The man who stoIe the general's speech afterwards played the same trick on me. He came into our State from New England with a great reputation. He was a very fine elocutionist, of excellent presence and manner, but utterly incapable of original thought. He could not prepare a speech of any kind. However, he had a phenomenal memory. He could listen to a speech made by another and repeat it perfectly. His attractive appearance, good voice, and fine elocution made the speech a great success. Several orators told me that when they found their efforts a failure they asked for the cause, and discovered that this man had delivered their speeches a few nights before, and the audience, of course, thought the last speaker was a fraud and a thief.
General Bruce told me a good campaign story of Senator James W. Nye, of Nevada. Nye was a prominent lawyer of western New York, and the most eloquent and witty member of the bar of that section, and also the most popular campaign speaker. He moved to Nevada and so impressed the people of that young State that he was elected United States senator. In the Senate he became a notable figure.
Nye and General Bruce were sent by the national committee to canvass New England. Nye had become senatorial in his oratory, with much more dignity and elevation of style than before. He began his first speech at Bridgeport, Conn., in this way: "Fellow citizens, I have come three thousand miles from my mountain home, three thousand feet above the level of the sea, to discuss with you these vital questions for the safety of our republic." The next night, at New Haven, he said: "I have come from my mountain home, five thousand feet above the level of the sea, to discuss with you these vital questions of the safety of our republic." Bruce interrupted him, saying: "Why, senator, it was only three thousand feet last night." Nye turned savagely on Bruce: "Bruce, you go to the devil!" Resuming with the audience, he remarked very impressively: "As I was saying, fellow citizens, I have come from my mountain home, ten thousand feet above the level of the sea, to, etc."
A story which illustrates and enforces the argument helps a political speech, and it is often the only part of the speech which is remembered. I have often heard people say to me: "I heard you speak thirty, forty, or fifty years ago, and this is the story you told." Sometimes, however, the story may prove a boomerang in the most unexpected way.
For many years, when I spoke in northern New York I was always met at the Syracuse station by a superintendent of the Lackawanna Railroad with a special train filled with friends. He carried me up to my destination and brought me back in the morning. It was his great day of the year, and during the trip he was full of reminiscences, and mainly of the confidences reposed in him by the president of the road, my old and valued friend, Samuel Sloan.
One fall he failed to appear, and there was no special train to meet me. I was told by friends that the reason was his wife had died and he was in mourning. The morning after the meeting I started to call upon him, but was informed that he was very hostile and would not see me. I was not going to lose an old friend like that and went up to his office. As soon as I entered, he said: "Go away, I don't want to see you again." I appealed to him, saying: "I cannot lose so good a friend as you. If there is anything I have done or said, I will do everything in my power to make it right." He turned on me sharply and with great emotion told this story: "My wife and I lived in loving harmony for over thirty years, and when she died recently I was heartbroken. The whole town was sympathetic; most of the business houses closed during the hour of the funeral. I had arranged to have ministers whom my wife admired, and with them selected passages of scriptures and hymns to which she was devoted. A new minister in town was invited by the others to participate, and without my knowledge. I looked over the congregation, all Mary's friends. I listened to the services, which Mary herself would have chosen, and said to Mary's spirit, which I knew to be hovering about: 'We are all paying you a loving tribute.' Then the new minister had for his part the announcement and reading of a hymn. At the last Republican convention at Saratoga, in order to illustrate the condition of the Democratic party, you told a story about a boy walking among the children's graves in the old cemetery at Peekskill, eating green apples and whistling 'Nearer, my God, to Thee.' The new minister gave that hymn, 'Nearer, my God, to Thee.' Your story came up in my mind, and I burst out laughing. I disgraced myself, insulted the memory of Mary, and I never want to see you again."