hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News August 2018


A case of campaign name-calling that backfired

Maury Thompson



William Randolph Hearst, as the Democratic candidate for governor of New York in 1906, delivered a campaign speech so full of guttural ire that it went down in history.

Hearst coined a nickname for his Republican opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, that reporters would repeat for years to come. He branded his opponent the “animated feather duster,” a reference to Hughes’ whiskers. The nickname stuck, but it didn’t retain the hostile tone that Hearst had intended.

Hearst, a newspaper publisher who hoped to use the governor’s office as the stepping stone to a run for the presidency, wanted to rally his base with a clever slogan, much like the “lock her up” chant that Donald Trump used to taunt Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

But Hearst’s bid proved unsuccessful. Instead, it would be Hughes who would find the governor’s office opened the path to even greater political and judicial achievements.

Hughes’ victory in the 1906 gubernatorial campaign was the crucial step in his transformation from little-known lawyer into one of the nation’s leading statesmen in the first half of the 20th century. He would go on to run for president in 1916, losing narrowly to incumbent Woodrow Wilson. He also was U.S. secretary of state for five years under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and he served two stints on the U.S. Supreme Court, the second time as chief justice.

Before he ran for governor, Hughes, a native of Glens Falls, had gained a measure of notoriety by leading state investigations of public utilities and life insurance companies. He won the race against Hearst by carrying upstate and the counties immediately surrounding New York City. He was the only Republican to win statewide office that year.

Hearst, like Trump, was known for coming up with nicknames for political adversaries. “Root the Rat” was what Hearst’s newspapers called Secretary of State Elihu Root when Root campaigned in New York for Hughes a week before the 1906 election. Root was in New York at the direction of President Theodore Roosevelt, who like Hughes was a Republican.

About a year after Hearst’s campaign speech denouncing Hughes, the magazine writer James Creelman recalled it as a turning point in the campaign.

“Radicalism wagged its head, shook its sides and stuffed its fist in its mouth at the rare sally of its leader,” Creelman wrote. “There came from the audience a swift sound of pleasure, half-scream, half-shout, that made the scarlet show in the radical’s long, white, close-shaven face and set something burning in his cold, pale eyes.”

The “animated feather duster” nickname had just the opposite result of what Hearst intended.
In fact, sympathetic newspapers turned it around and characterized Hughes as a feather duster poised to clean out corruption and inefficiency from the corridors of government.

“The animated feather duster has been found highly useful in cleaning the cobwebs out of New York gubernatorial appointments,” the Duluth Evening Herald wrote in an editorial in 1907.
Similarly, an editorial in the St. Lawrence Republican and Ogdensburgh Weekly Journal said the contrast between Hearst and Hughes was one that favored Hughes: “The night-blooming cereus (cactus) is smooth faced. The lion has whiskers. William Randolph Hearst is smooth faced. Charles Evans Hughes has whiskers.”

Creelman suggested that Hearst came to regret the moniker he bestowed on Hughes.
“Now, nearly a year after this outburst, Mr. Hearst has had time to reflect on his ill-chosen fling at his successful antagonist and to learn that loose figures of speech revenge themselves,” Creelman wrote. “For Governor Hughes has demonstrated that even a feather duster, if he be animated enough, is not a bad thing in the neglected places of government.”

Among other reforms he pursued as governor, Hughes partnered with Al Smith, a Democratic assemblyman who later was elected governor, to introduce a package of “clean elections” legislation.

Although it did not become law during his administration, Hughes championed the idea of direct primary elections for determining political party nominations – replacing a system of county conventions that was strongly controlled by party leaders.

Hughes also established the state Public Service Commission to regulate public utilities; he created the first permanent Probation Commission in the nation and the state’s first workers compensation law.

Hughes signed 56 labor laws during his time as governor, and the Potsdam Herald would later call him “the greatest friend of labor laws that ever occupied the governor’s chair at Albany.”
In the 1906 campaign, the Herald had cast Hughes’ facial hair as an asset – at least in the sense that the 15 minutes a day it would have taken Hearst to shave could be put to better use.
“From now until Election Day, Charles Evans Hughes will save seven and a half hours that William Randolph Hearst will waste, waste, waste,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial. “A man who will waste time will waste money.”

Factor that out over the length of his political and judicial career, and it appears Hughes saved 3,217 hours, or about 134 days, by not shaving.

Hearst’s nickname for him stuck with Hughes as a badge of honor.


Maury Thompson retired last year after 21 years as a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.
This column was drawn from his new book, “The Animated Feather Duster: Slow News Day Tales of the Legendary Facial Hair of Charles Evans Hughes.” The book is available at area bookstores and museum shops and online at the Maury518 eBay store.