With just about ten weeks until the Presidential vote, smear merchants on both sides continue to run wild. The internet is one big Defamation.com; John Kerry is a traitor, George W. Bush is a deserter. And there’s big money behind the purveyors of this vile brew.
But this is nothing new for America. What’s changed is the machinery that delivers the slander. All throughout our history character assassins have surfaced every four years to attack anyone daring enough to run for the highest office in the land. The freedom of screech extends all the way back to 1796.
In that election, campaign supporters of John Adams really went after his opponent Thomas Jefferson, calling him, among other things, an atheist, anarchist, demagogue, coward, trickster and a mountebank.
A mountebank is a guy who sells phony medicine, in case you’re like me and didn’t know.
Jefferson’s crowd immediately struck back by labeling Adams: egotistical, erratic, eccentric and jealous-natured.
Historian Paul Boller describes all this in his lively book “Campaigns” (Oxford Press). Boller chronicles each Presidential contest, and it’s clear that we have learned little over the years. The mud stays eerily similar throughout the ages.
In 1828, for example, backers of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson were totally out of control. Jackson won the vote despite being accused of adultery, gambling, cock fighting, bigamy, slave trading, drunkenness, theft, lying, and murder. I guess the voters figured anyone with that much energy deserved the top job.
But Jackson’s people didn’t silently stand by. No way. They hammered Adams hard, accusing him of having premarital relations with his wife and traveling on a Sunday. It doesn’t get lower than that.
The slime machine behind James Polk went to work in 1844, announcing that his opponent, Henry Clay, had systemically violated every one of The Ten Commandments.
Clay’s mudslingers immediately replied calling Polk “unimaginative.” Polk won the election carrying much of the non-creative vote.
U.S. Grant was, perhaps, the most vilified Presidential candidate in history. Running against Horace Greeley in 1872, Grant was called a crook, an ignoramus, a drunk, a swindler, and an “utterly depraved horse jockey.”
It’s entirely possible that last attack caused much sympathy for Grant who carried 31 of 37 states. A depraved horse jockey indeed!
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was actually shot in the chest while campaigning in Milwaukee. He got up, finished his speech, and then went to the hospital. Woodrow Wilson won the election, but let’s give the Rough Rider some credit here.
During the campaign of 1928, hysteria reigned because Al Smith was a Roman Catholic. Some supporters of his opponent Herbert Hoover got this message out: If elected, Smith would annul all Protestant marriages and extend the newly completed Holland Tunnel in New York City all the way to Rome! Talk about a big dig.
Compared to the above, calling Bill Clinton a “pot smoking, draft dodger,” or labeling John Kerry a “flip-flopper” doesn’t even rate. President Bush’s intelligence is being challenged but nowhere have I seen him accused of fathering an out-of-wedlock child as was Grover Cleveland (who actually did). So while we have been assaulted by Swift Boats and taunted by the likes of Michael Moore, the slime peddlers are not nearly as creative as they used to be.
I just pray Bush and Kerry don’t travel on Sunday.