term “photo op” had not yet been coined, but long before jet planes and aircraft
carriers would be invented, savvy 19th century politicians understood something
as well as their modern successors: that staged events could get free ink for
someone aspiring to public office.|
Two days after Christmas in 1899, several
score Austin “sportsmen” saddled their horses and called up their dogs for a Texas-style
fox hunt, only the quarry would be a mountain lion, not a fox. And it is extremely
doubtful that anyone had a horn, though there might have been a horn or two of
whiskey hanging from a few saddles just in case one of the dogs poked his nose
in a rattlesnake den and disturbed one of its hibernating occupants.
the hunt was former governor James
Stephen Hogg (whose 300 pound-plus bulk was a clear and present danger to
anything short of a beer wagon horse) and his guest, the honorable William Jennings
Bryan, a Democrat, was a US Senator from Nebraska. In 1896, at
the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he had given his famous “Cross
of Gold” speech. Campaigning on economic points now lumped together by historians
as the free silver issue, he lost that year’s presidential race to William McKinley.
in 1899, Bryan was posed to make another run for the White House. Again, it looked
like his opponent would be McKinley.
Though Hogg had chosen to end his
political career, the first native-born Texas governor remained vitally interested
in politics. He really thought Bryan should be the next President of the United
States. As a veteran campaigner, he also knew that Bryan’s name had to be kept
vibrant in the public mind -- and in the public print.
An old newspaper
man, maybe Hogg cooked up the lion hunt idea himself. He certainly was known for
his sense of humor, and he had grown up in East Texas, where hunting everything
from raccoons to bear with dogs was as common as pine cones.
Hogg and Bryan mounted their horses (it was not reported whether someone had to
help Hogg into the saddle) and led a posse of some 100 hunters and half as many
trailing dogs into the cedar covered hills west of the capital city. Though that
portion of Travis County was sparsely-populated, even in 1899 it was far from
prime catamount habitat. Fortunately, “details of the hunt” had been seen to in
About 1:30 p.m., the mighty hunters rode back into town with
a live, tail-swishing, highly-annoyed mountain lion in their custody. A closer
inspection would have shown the cat was somewhat long in the tooth.
sport was reported as being quite lively throughout,” the Austin Statesman informed
its readers the next day.
But the hunt was as phony as a counterfeit greenback,
free silver or not.
The newspaper, to its credit, said as much in its
report of the incident. It didn’t belabor the point, but back then the term “canned
hunt” would have been as foreign as “photo op.”
“The panther had been
cooped up for the past three days, and was released about an hour before the party
arrived,” the anonymous scribe who reported the hunt wrote. “The dogs took his
trail at once, and after two hours rambling through heavy undergrowth and many
acres of prickly pear came upon the panther, who had been forced to take refuge
in a small tree.”
The dogs managed to get the cat un-treed and quite a
fight ensued, according to the contemporary report. “Specially aggressive in the
matter of attacking the panther” was ex-Governor Hogg’s fox terrier.
After the dogs and the old cat mixed it up for about an hour, the lion was lassoed
and brought back to Austin so the proud
politicians could pose for a photograph with their catch. Hopefully, its owner
gave it a saucer of milk before putting it back in its cage.
exactly a wild cat, the lion had given the horsemen and their dogs a good run.
Some of the riders would be pulling cactus needles from their legs for a while,
not to mention the fate of the animals involved.
Even so, the newspaper
concluded, “The hunt was pronounced by all as being a great one... and the entire
crowd was most pleased.”
The electorate, however, was unimpressed that
the senator from Nebraska was an accomplished lion hunter. McKinley beat Bryan
again in 1900.