his Harper's Weekly cover cartoon by Thomas Nast pokes fun at Republican presidential nominee James Blaine in several ways. Among his political opponents, Blaine was considered to be an habitual liar, as exemplified in a popular campaign chant in 1884:
"Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine!
Continental liar from the state of Maine!"
The illusory nature of Blaine's words is emphasized by the cartoon's setting of a theatrical stage, where the nominee is about to perform his act; that is, to try to be something that he is not. The play will not be a political drama, however, but a farce, a joke before the entire nation.
Blaine is being introduced by Whitelaw Reid, the editor of the New York Tribune, which endorsed the nominee, as the announcement on the backstage wall (left) indicates. During the 1884 campaign, Nast depicts Reid as an aristocratic aesthete (art-lover); note Reid's studded cuffs and dainty slippers which appear through the gap in the curtain.
At the Republican National Convention in 1876, Blaine's name was placed in nomination for president by Robert Ingersoll, who called his candidate "a plumed knight" who fought for the honor of the Union in the halls of Congress during the Civil War. Nast turned that title of honor against Blaine to mock the nominee as a spoilsman, sporting white feathers (plumes) in his hat as he fights for himself.
The clean, white shirt that a baffled Blaine wears inappropriately has a double meaning. During the 1870s, as speaker of the house and senator, Blaine was a proponent of Reconstruction and civil rights legislation for black Americans. He was also one of the foremost "wavers of the bloody shirt"; that is, of associating the Democratic party with secession, civil war, and violence. Late in the 1880 presidential campaign, he helped convince the Republicans to forsake the bloody shirt for the tariff issue. In the 1884 campaign, Blaine again emphasized the tariff. In that regard, he wears a shirt cleansed of blood.
Furthermore, the clean shirt is a symbol of purity. The scandal-ridden Blaine attempts to cover his corruption with it, but is too unfamiliar with the honesty and integrity that it represents to put it on correctly.