8 - Politics at the Fair
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Voice of Roosevelt:
“Speak softly and carry a big stick”
In 1901, the Minnesota State Fair was the place to be when Theodore Roosevelt first spoke those famous words. Politics were an important part of the Minnesota State Fair. Before the invention of the radio, the fair was where voters heard politicians speak first hand. These formal political speeches were very popular until one hot day in 1922
Sound of crowd clapping over Coolidge’s speech:
Calvin Coolidge stepped up to the microphone to give a speech right before an auto race at the Grandstand. On that 98 degree day, the crowd couldn’t wait for the races any longer. So, they started clapping loudly after only 46 minutes of the speech. The Vice-President gave in and ended his speech early. After that, the fair began to offer more action packed entertainment at the Grandstand, like train wrecks and plane acrobats.
The invention of radio and television made politicians more accessible in homes, but only as a “one way monologue.” The fair allows candidates running for office to rub elbows with voters at their own booths. During an election year candidates can be seen daily – shaking voter’s hands, answering questions, and discussing ideas.
“My father ran for Lt Governor along with Elmer Anderson in the very famous election that was decided between Anderson and Rolvaag with 91 votes. I have a vivid memory of Elmer Anderson pinning a red and white Anderson/Peterson little button on my sundress at the State Fair outside republican headquarters.”
Voters become walking endorsers too, by wearing or carrying political freebies such as bags, fans, buttons, and hats.
“Up until about 7th grade we would be handing out literature and meet lots and lots of people. When I wasn’t standing with a little hat with a red white and blue ribbon around it, I would be in the back stamping envelopes, so I was put to work.”
The state fair political booths are endless sources of information and increase the accessibility of candidates. In 2005 there were fourteen political booths at the fair!
“Whether it’s my father or any candidate from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s 90’s, 2000’s is it’s the ability of grassroots politicking. Of pressing the flesh and meeting business people meeting the citizens of Minnesota because the state fair is made up of people from all over the gopher state or, you know, the North Star state.”
Most politicians who have booths at the state fair provide pamphlets, a bit of shade, and some buttons.
“I love meeting candidates. I love the participatory process of the booths, that people really do stop there and want to express their opinions and talk to people and interact around the political process.”
A few politicians over the years developed inventive ideas for political booths. Rudy Boschwitz’s “Super Duper Milk House” began selling milk at the 1979 Fair, in flavors of milk like banana, root beer, and amaretto. He saw the milk enthusiasts at his booth as customers as well as voters.
Another senator with a unique campaign approach was Paul Wellstone. Wellstone started his career in politics on a very low budget. Like most politicians, Wellstone found a cheap way to campaign: shaking hands at the State Fair!
“...The first year I moved here in 1997, I went to the State Fair. I don’t think I made it more than 10 steps before this short, really curly-haired man with lots of energy came up to me and shook my hand. I didn’t know who he was, and he wanted to know what my name was and why I’d moved here, he introduced himself as Paul Wellstone. He kept peppering me with questions and said: what brought you here and what do you think of it? And then he asked me if i needed anything,
and I just thought, do I need anything? Wow! Minnesotans are really awesome if that is what my experience is with the first-time politician encounter.”
Wellstone traveled the country on a grassroots campaign in an old green bus to save money. As his career grew, so did the fame of his green bus. The bus became a symbol of Paul Wellstone’s political beliefs and his image as an approachable “man of the people.”
The State Fair has not been just a campaigning ground for Minnesota politicians. The fair plays host to many National politicians as well!
“Every election cycle during the time of the state fair, there’s always this political excitement and optimism in the air. no matter what party you belong to. It’s democracy! It’s that American engagement with the political process and that we get to be so close to the people who represent us in the legislature and the congress and the presidency.”
Among the politicians who have been seen at the fair are Rutherford B. Hayes, Calvin Coolidge, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Warren Harding, Teddy Roosevelt and William H. Taft.
William Jennings Bryan made quite a few State Fair appearances. Jennings was to make a speech opposite his presidential contender William Howard Taft for the “Roman Forum of Later Days” Fair event. Taft never showed up, but the thousands of people present that day were awed by Bryan's speech.
John F. Kennedy spoke at the 1962 Democratic Bean Feed for twenty thousand people, held in the Hippodrome (now the Coliseum) and Cattle Barn. A few years later, the Fair had a whole day dedicated to Minnesota native, Hubert Humphrey, Vice President of the United States. Humphrey was spotted drinking milk with Princess Kay and cutting a cake at the new Education Building.
In 1998, Al Gore spoke about energy conservation, the economy, and education for three hours in front of thousands of people.
“On the radio we heard that Al Gore was going to be at the Minnesota State Fair that afternoon. So we booked it over to the state fair to see Al Gore. It was packed, there was a huge crowd over on machinery hill. I remember Paul Wellstone coming out and talking and kind of getting the crowd all excited and then Al Gore came out and spoke that was the closest I’d ever gotten to a vice president or president.”