During the Los Angeles riots in 1992, Rodney King appeared on television and offered what would become his famous plea, “Can we all get along?” The same question has dominated the media coverage of the current political situation in America as political opponents argue back and forth about governing.
But contrary to the commonly held view that political discourse today is more unpleasant and ugly than ever, the roots of nasty politics date back to the earliest campaigns in U.S. history.
Joseph Cummins’ book Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises chronicles the history of nasty politics since George Washington’s election in 1789. A 2007 New York Times interview of Cummins noted the following observations about dirty political campaigns, among others:
“I think the mudslinging definitely is still a big part of our election process, but it’s less broad and vulgar. For instance, there is less aimed at other people’s physical attributes. The 19th century was big on that. ... Martin Van Buren was accused of wearing women’s corsets (by Davy Crockett, no less) and James Buchanan (who had a congenital condition that caused his head to tilt to the left) was accused of having unsuccessfully tried to hang himself. Oh, and Abraham Lincoln reportedly had stinky feet.”
In response to the question, “What was the ugliest campaign in history?” Cummins commented: “So many dirty elections, so little time. ... There have been stolen elections (the Rutherford Hayes-Samuel Tilden contest in 1876 was certainly stolen by Republicans in the South) ... I would say that 1964 was the ugliest presidential contest I have researched. ...
“President Lyndon Johnson, seeking his first elective term after taking over for the assassinated JFK, set out not just to defeat (Barry) Goldwater, but to destroy him and create a huge mandate for himself ... They put out a Goldwater joke book, in which your little one could happily color pictures of Goldwater dressed in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. ... This committee also wrote letters to columnist Ann Landers purporting to be from ordinary citizens terrified of the prospect of a Goldwater presidency. ... But perhaps the ugliest things about the 1964 election was Johnson’s treatment of the press. He remarked to an aide that ‘reporters are puppets,’ and had his people feed them misleading information about the Goldwater campaign.”
After the 19th Amendment was passed, “there was an immediate attempt to pander to women voters in 1920, the first year that women began casting their votes for president in large numbers,” Cummins wrote.
“Both parties at different times in American history have been guilty of mind-boggling attempts to influence elections,” he wrote. “In the 1880s, one of the worst decades in terms of dirty tricks, Republicans sent bagmen to Indiana — then a pivotal state — with hundreds of thousands of dollars in two-dollar bills (dubbed ‘Soapy Sams’ for their ability to grease palms) in order to purchase votes.”
TotallyTop10.com, noting that negative political campaign ads and smears go back many decades, lists the following 10 most negative political campaign ads in U.S. and Canadian history. Whether these are the most negative ads may be arguable, but they are instructive as examples:
» During the presidential primaries in 2007, the 3 a.m. White House phone call ad, in which a Hillary Clinton TV ad portrayed her as being more qualified on military and defense matters than Barack Obama.
» The Willie Horton political ad in 1988, which implied that Michael Dukakis was soft on crime. Horton assaulted a couple and severely raped a woman during one of several weekend passes he received while in prison.
» During the presidential primaries in 2007, John McCain compared Obama with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, claiming that Obama appeared to be more interested in international fame than serving the country as president.
» In 1980, when he was running for governor of Ohio, Jerry Springer admitted that he had paid prostitutes for sex some years earlier.
» The campaign ad “The wrong kind — Congressman Ron Kind.”
» In the Canadian federal election, candidate Stephanie Dion was shown being pooped on by an animated puffin.
» In the 1964 American presidential election, the “daisy girl” commercial warned that if Goldwater were elected he would use the H-bomb and start a war that would destroy America.
» The political ad in the 1800 presidential campaign, Jefferson vs. John Adams, arguing, “If Jefferson would be president today we could expect pure evil.”
» Dating back to the 1840s, dirty tricks have also played an important role in American politics. Following the Civil War, they became nastier, when, in 1880, a New York scandal sheet published a letter that was purported to have been written by James Garfield to the head of the employers union of Lynn, Mass., endorsing the right of corporations to hire the cheapest labor available, including Chinese workers. The letter was a forgery, but it almost derailed Garfield’s campaign until he was able to prove that he had not written it.
Nasty political discourse is generally thought to be worse today than ever before, but the record clearly demonstrates that dirty politics has been with us since the beginning of the nation.
As with all things, in political campaigning the more things change the more they stay the same.
— Harris Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.