The prosecutor made the point that no one—not even a presidential candidate—is above the law.
“No man, even though four times the candidate of his party for the highest office in the land, can violate the basic law of this land,” said Edwin Wertz, the federal prosecutor charging Eugene Debs, perennial Socialist Party presidential candidate, in 1918.
Fast-forward more than 100 years. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, and other Democrats, have used a similar line in referring to Donald Trump, a former president and current presidential candidate, indicted for alleged state crimes in connection to so-called hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels.
The first-ever indictment of a once and possibly future president has invited comparison to Debs, convicted under a Woodrow Wilson-era sedition law for opposing America’s involvement in World War I. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
While politically Debs had more in common with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., than he would with the 45th president, the Debs case—similar to Trump’s case in New York—was perceived by many at the time as a politicized prosecution, since President Wilson did not appreciate criticism of the war effort.
Debs was also the first–and so far only—presidential candidate to run a campaign from prison. During the 1920 campaign, his fifth and final run for the presidency, all things considered, he did OK, winning a bit less than 1 million votes.
Serving time in a federal prison in Atlanta as Prisoner No. 9653, the skilled orator couldn’t deliver campaign speeches. But as a prominent national figure, he issued widely read weekly campaign statements from prison published by the United Press wire service.
In his campaign statements, he rarely went after either the Republican nominee, Warren Harding, or the Democrat nominee, James Cox.
He instead directed his ire at Wilson as a “a tool of Wall Street” and “a college professor who isn’t fit to be president because he doesn’t know the lives of the people.”
His supporters actually passed around campaign buttons with a picture of Debs that read “Prisoner 9653,” creating a martyr image, according to The Washington Post.
Another Debs campaign statement per The Post: “I thank the capitalist masters for putting me here. They know where I belong under their criminal and corrupting system. It is the only compliment they could pay me.”
Debs also vowed to pardon himself if elected. That’s something that Trump could not do if reelected president if he were to be convicted on state charges, since a president can only issue pardons for a federal offense.
From behind bars, Debs received 913,693 votes. That was his highest vote tally ever. However, it was just 3.5% of the vote. That’s a smaller percentage than when he won 6% of the popular vote in 1912, while garnering 901,551 votes.
Harding won the 1920 election, and issued a Christmas 2021 commutation to Debs, and even invited him to the White House. It was part of Harding’s “return to normalcy policies,” to move on from Wilson’s progressive governmental and wartime policies.
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