Here is an excerpt from an article written by Justin Fox for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
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Six days before the election, the Republican nominee for president attended a fund-raising dinner at a posh New York restaurant. Two-hundred of the country’s richest and most powerful men were on hand. The next day, they were confronted with this atop the front page of one of the city’s leading newspapers:
This particular scan is from the historical-cartoon site HarpWeek, but the drawing has long been in the public domain — it ran in the now-defunct New York World on Oct. 30, 1884. The candidate was James G. Blaine (the droopy-eyed fellow in the center of the picture who is about to dig in to some Lobby Pudding), and the man who subjected him to this harsh treatment was Joseph Pulitzer, who had bought the World the previous year and was rapidly building it into the most popular and powerful newspaper the nation had ever seen.
The cartoon that Pulitzer had Walt McDougall and Valerian Gribayedoff draw was just the beginning — although what a beginning it was, featuring the likes of Jay Gould (seated just left of Blaine) and William Vanderbilt (son of Cornelius, seated just to the right of Blaine with the awesome bifurcated beard, although according to historian Richard John, he wasn’t even at the dinner) feasting on political spoils at Delmonico’s while a poor family begged for scraps. As James McGrath Morris recounts in his wonderful biography of Pulitzer:
“The World revealed every aspect of the dinner, even though the organizers had done their best to bar the press. From the Timbales à la Reine and Soufflés aux Marrons upon which the men feasted to the thousands of dollars pledged to buy votes, no detail was left out. Even more damning, the main story began with a one-paragraph account of men who had been thrown out of work at a mill in Blaine’s home state and were now applying for assistance or emigrating to Canada.”
Some of this was partisan politics: Pulitzer, himself on the ballot as a Democratic candidate for Congress, supported Blaine’s opponent, Grover Cleveland. New York was the most important battleground state, and the World’s assault was widely credited with handing the presidency to Cleveland a few days later.
It wasn’t just that, though. In an era when America’s first industrial magnates were amassing unheard-of riches and using it to mold the political system to their liking, resentment of that wealth and power was widespread. Pulitzer’s attacks on the rich helped bring in readers, so many that before long he too had become a multimillionaire with a yacht, a house not far from Vanderbilt’s on East 55th St. in Manhattan, and a membership in the Jekyll Island Club.
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Here’s a direct link to the complete article.
Justin Fox is Executive Editor, New York, of the Harvard Business Review Group and author of The Myth of the Rational Market. Follow him on Twitter @foxjust.