McDougall himself would later reminisce that Blaine had confided to him that the World might well have been right. “If Blaine had eaten a few more swell dinners,” lamented one bitter Republican strategist, “and had a few more ministers call on him, we should not have carried a northern state.”
Ironically, McDougall had unsuccessfully pitched the idea for a similar cartoon linking Blaine with Wall Street fat cats to the editors of the magazine Puck several months earlier. Following the Delmonico’s dinner, McDougall recycled some of the images from his failed project to draw “Royal Feast,” helping to explain the speed with which he readied it. (From start to finish, the project took a mere two hours, or so recalled a fellow World staffer who helped bring it to life.) This also explains why some of the business leaders McDougall featured — including William H. Vanderbilt, with his signature mutton chops — found their way into the cartoon, but not Blaine’s dinner.
Had McDougall’s cartoon run earlier in the election cycle, it might not have been as devastating. In politics, timing is everything, and the appearance of “Royal Feast” less than a week before voters went to the polls helped frame the 1884 campaign in a way that Republicans found impossible to rebut.
Black-and-white cartoons would soon become a staple feature of daily newspapers, ushering in a new age of image-driven politics. “Royal Feast” set the stage, demonstrating how one journalist could help tip an election by crystallizing popular hostility to the corrupting nexus of big business and politics. It could also offer lessons for today’s big-money campaigns: If Blaine were alive today, he would certainly feel Romney’s pain.
Richard R. John is a historian who teaches in the doctoral program at Columbia Journalism School.