T Nation

'It's Much More Fun in the Mud'

I’ve been wondering a lot about this – lots of claims floating about concerning how “polarized” the parties are now, and how there is more mudslinging and dirty campaigning going on now – press reports of “The Nastiest Campaign in History” or other such nonsense.

The question that always comes to mind: Compared to when?

I know it’s the press’ job to make the news sound more interesting, but, really, doesn’t anyone know anything of history? Max Boot has an excellent piece on historical political rancor in today’s L.A. Times, and it illustrates just how bland today’s “Politics of Hate” (or whatever other such crap people are talking about) actually is:


It’s Much More Fun in the Mud

  • Venom and an occasional duel: Politics used to be interesting.

Bush supporters are furious that some liberals have the temerity to accuse the president of misusing terrorism alerts for political purposes. Kerry supporters are equally steamed that some conservatives are questioning whether Kerry really performed all those heroic acts in Vietnam.

Charges of negative campaigning fill the air like confetti at one of the political conventions. Much of this, of course, is nakedly self-serving. The typical formulation of politicians on the make is: “I pledge to run a campaign on the issues, unlike my low-life opponent who is plumbing new depths of depravity.”

John Kerry offered a classic of this genre in his acceptance speech in which he pleaded with President Bush, “Let’s build unity in the American family, not angry division” ? and then declared, “Let’s never misuse for political purposes the most precious document in American history, the Constitution of the United States,” implying that Bush had done just that. Oh, he’s a great uniter, Kerry is.

But whaddaya expect from a pol? What’s amazing is that the press corps falls for this schtick. Every four years it reports with a straight face that the campaign in progress is the dirtiest of all time. The Washington Post already proclaimed on its front page all the way back in May that Bush was guilty of “unprecedented negativity.” What did this extraordinary defamation consist of? The Bushies had accused Kerry of, inter alia, questioning “whether the war on terror is really a war at all,” opposing key provisions of the Patriot Act and proposing to repeal Bush’s tax cuts.

Never mind that all of these charges are accurate. Even if Bush really had been guilty of making “wrong, or at least seriously misleading charges,” as the Post alleged, one is struck by the mildness of the charges involved. You call this mudslinging?

Like a few hundred thousand other people, I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s enthralling biography of Alexander Hamilton. It serves as a timely reminder that the era of the founding fathers, which we usually think of (correctly) as a time of high-minded philosophical discourse, was also full of venomous vituperation that has no parallel in modern America.

Federalists saw the Democratic-Republicans (forerunners of today’s Democrats) as anarchists who wanted to bring the French reign of terror to America. Republicans saw the Federalists as monarchists who wanted to restore British tyranny. Hamilton, a leading Federalist, described Thomas Jefferson, a leading Republican, as a “subversive” and “dangerous” influence who was “an atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics.” Jefferson, in turn, wrote that Hamilton’s views “flowed from principles adverse to liberty” and were “calculated to undermine and demolish the republic.”

And these were about the nicest things either one had to say about the other. Hamilton was routinely accused of embezzling federal money and being on the British payroll. Those charges weren’t true, but a Republican newspaper was accurate, if indelicate, in calling him “The Adulterer,” in reference to his dalliance with Maria Reynolds, which became at least as famous as the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Hamilton was one of the most polarizing figures of the early republic ? the Newt Gingrich of his day ? but he was hardly unique as a target of calumny. Even the sainted George Washington lost his immunity from criticism by the end of his eight years in office. His farewell address was denounced by one newspaper as “the loathings of a sick mind.”

In such a poisonous political climate, it was inevitable that passions would spill over into violence. Today we get exercised because the vice president told a senator that he should go perform a sex act on himself, and a potential first lady told a reporter to “shove it.” In 1798, a Republican and a Federalist representative beat each other on the floor of Congress with a hickory stick and fire tongs. During a political rally in New York, Hamilton was pelted with stones, one of which hit his forehead.

And then, of course, there were the duels.

The most famous was the one on July 11, 1804, in which Vice President Aaron Burr killed former Treasury Secretary Hamilton. (Imagine Dick Cheney plugging Robert Rubin.) But this was hardly an anomaly. By one count, between 1795 and 1807 there were 16 “affairs of honor” to settle political quarrels. Hamilton’s son, Philip, died in such a shootout just before Hamilton did.

So let’s keep a little perspective, shall we? Sure, the Bush and Kerry camps may say nasty things about each other. Charges of “liar” and “waffler,” “appeaser” and “warmonger” will fly. But compared with the nation’s founding ? widely considered the high point of American politics ? things have actually gotten pretty tame.

Maybe if we had more backbiting in our politics more of the electorate would actually tune in.

Its the 'ol rose tinted glasses Boston Barrister. As soon as people look into the past the glasses go on and suddenly things were so much more wonderful back then. Your press is calling this the dirtiest election ever. In a parallel rose tinted fasion ours are reporting that school exams used to be harder because more people pass now. It couldn’t be that politicians have always slung mud and that people pass more exams because education science has come on leaps and bounds. Oh no, the past was a clearly a more genteel and intelligent age.

I think we should elect politicians in large paintball matches. We take all the potential Congressmen, hand them paintball guns, and let them go after each other. For each seat, the last candidate standing wins; the last Representative standing becomes the Speaker for the House.

Alternately, we could just have them drink shots of whiskey in a big puke-or-pass-out competition.

Historian Paul Johnson offers some more perspective for those inclined to buy into this year’s claims of “Dirtiest” or “Meanest” - or what have you - election in history.

Also note, for you Free Speech buffs, how much of what we would consider “bad speech” was thrown about back then – by people who were around when the 1st Amendment was passed, and knew what it was meant to protect:

Once Upon a Time

October 20, 2004; Page A16

The two most significant elections in American history were in 1789 and 1793, when George Washington was elected, then re-elected as president. They were significant because he, by character and experience, was the ideal man to launch the new republic as its First Magistrate.

Everyone knew this, including Washington himself, though he accepted with “a heart filled with distress, the ten thousand embarrassments, perplexities and troubles to which I must again be exposed in the evening of life already unduly consumed in public cares” (but he was only 57). Neither election was a contest. Members of the electoral college were chosen by the states on the assumption they would vote for Washington, and that he would accept. The candidate spent even less than he did in 1758 getting himself elected a Virginian burgess, when he forked out ?40 for 35 gallons of wine, 47 gallons of beer, two gallons of cider, half a pint of brandy and three barrels of rum punch.

Early elections (of Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe) were usually sedate if far from unanimous affairs. John Quincy Adams’s election in 1824 was a landmark because it accelerated the move toward choosing electors by popular vote. Out of 356,038 votes cast, Andrew Jackson emerged the clear leader with 153,544, Adams being 40,000 votes behind. Jackson also had the most electoral college votes, 99 to 84, with 78 for other candidates. But under the 12th Amendment, if no candidate got a majority of the college, the election went to the House, which picked the winner from the top three, voting by state. This put the choice effectively into the hands of Henry Clay, the all-powerful Speaker, who gave it to Adams, on the secret condition Adams made him secretary of state. Jackson denounced the election as “a corrupt bargain,” and there was a growing feeling that future presidents must be chosen by the voters. Hence the re-run in 1828, in which Jackson again stood against Adams, was also of great significance since it was the first popular one in U.S. history.

It inaugurated the habit of long campaigns, since Tennessee nominated Jackson for president as early as Spring 1825, more than three years before the vote. The 1828 election saw the first “leak” and the first campaign posters. As Jackson was known as Old Hickory by his troops – it was “the hardest wood in creation” – Old Hickory clubs were formed all over the county, Hickory Trees were planted in towns, and Hickory Poles erected in villages. (Campaign badges and waistcoats had already been introduced in 1824.)

Adams’s supporters retaliated by the campaign poster known as the Coffin Handbill, listing 18 murders Jackson was supposed to have committed. Those who claim the current election is the dirtiest know little about 1828. An English visitor, shown a school in New England (where Adams was paramount), put questions to the class, including “Who killed Abel?” A child promptly replied “General Jackson, Ma’am.” An Adams pamphlet accused Jackson of “trafficking in human flesh,” another accused his wife of being a bigamist and adulterer. After seeing it, she took to her bed and died shortly after the election. To his dying day Jackson believed his political enemies had murdered her. On his side, pamphlets accused Adams of fornication, procuring American virgins for the Tsar while serving as ambassador in Russia, and being an alcoholic and sabbath-breaker. A White House inventory listing a billiard-table and a chess-set led to the accusation that Adams had introduced “gambling furniture.” (His most curious presidential habit, of taking a daily swim in the Potomac stark naked, went unnoticed.)

Jackson won the popular vote in this first razzmatazz election, 647,276 to 508,064, and the College by a clear majority. His inauguration was followed by a saturnalia in which thousands of his supporters invaded the White House and engaged in a drinking spree. The Spoils System (a new term) was inaugurated by the ejection of Adams’s men from public offices, a process called The Massacre of the Innocents.

Actually Adams was not the only president elected on a minority vote. The same happened to Polk in 1844, Taylor in 1848 and Buchanan in 1856. The last was a highly significant election because it was Buchanan’s handling of the growing North-South divide which meant the country drifted to civil war.

Hayes and Garfield were also minority presidents; so was Benjamin Harrison, and Cleveland on both occasions he was elected president. Woodrow Wilson too, only secured a minority of the total vote in 1912 and 1916, though the second time he came close to a majority with 49.3%. The 1912 election, however, was more significant because it was under Wilson that the state took a first giant step towards controlling American life. It introduced Federal Income Tax, and many devices on which, later, F.D. Roosevelt built his New Deal system.

It is notable that after J.Q. Adams, the president who scored the smallest share of the popular vote was Lincoln in 1860, who got only 39.9%. And this was certainly one of the most significant elections in U.S. history because it made the outbreak of the Civil War virtually inevitable. Most voters were clear they were participating in a make-or-break decision. Lincoln’s handling of the crisis was vindicated electorally when he won a clear majority of the vote in 1864.

Another significant election was 1948, when Harry S. Truman, against all the odds, beat Thomas Dewey, by his famous “give 'em hell!” campaign. Truman, too, failed to secure a majority, notching up 49.5%. Kennedy did only slightly better in 1960, scoring 49.8% against Nixon. His plurality was one of the smallest in U.S. history: 34,227,496 against 34,107,646 for Nixon, but he gained a huge margin of electoral college votes. This election was significant in that it marked the occasion when TV played a major, perhaps determining, part. Roosevelt had already demonstrated the importance of radio when his skill at the media, honed in his “Fireside Chats” as president, helped to secure his landslide re-election in 1936.

In 1960, the media (overwhelmingly pro-Democrat) judged Kennedy an outright winner in the TV debates. It was said that his team persuaded the studio to turn up the lights so that Nixon would sweat. Certainly, those who watched it on TV gave it to Kennedy, but those who only heard it on radio judged Nixon superior.

This contest was also significant because it marked the historical point at which a candidate’s religion ceased to be important. Al Smith’s Catholicism had cost him dear in the 1920s. In 1960, Catholicism was an asset in Kennedy, since he got over two-thirds of the Catholic vote, Nixon receiving only 22% (against 60 for Eisenhower in 1956), the lowest Republican total of the 20th century. Nixon had deliberately refused to bring up the Catholic issue, and he declared the result: “Bad for me, perhaps, but good for America.” He also refused to challenge the results in Illinois and Texas, where widespread, highly organized cheating gave the two big states to Kennedy, and with it the election. Years later Nixon told me he had been tempted to ask for an inquiry (as Al Gore was to do in 2000), but decided it would be “dangerous for the nation at a critical time.”

In recent decades the most significant election was 1980, when Reagan beat Jimmy Carter and so inaugurated the policies which demolished the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union, and ended the Cold War in a Western victory. Reagan won this election, which I covered closely, with wit and one-liners. The current election is likely to be significant, too, in deciding the strategy and tactics of the war against terrorism. But wit, alas, will play little part.

Mr. Johnson is author, inter alia, of “A History of the American People,” (Perennial, 1999).

Right on! I think formal dueling should be brought back as a fine and noble way of settling disputes. This “sue everybody” crap has to end. Gimme a friggin’ sword, and I’ll be your damn lawyer!!

[quote]lothario1132 wrote:
Right on! I think formal dueling should be brought back as a fine and noble way of settling disputes. This “sue everybody” crap has to end. Gimme a friggin’ sword, and I’ll be your damn lawyer!![/quote]


Do you think having a trial lawyer as VP is a good step toward curtailing lawsuits in America? No…I guess not.