Friday, March 23 , 2018, 11:56 pm | Fair 51º


Harris Sherline: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? Part I

As ugly as political discourse is today, it's not any worse than at other times in our history

A friend recently told me that he can’t stand listening to or watching the news on TV any more, because discussions about politics have become so unpleasant. The constant bickering, name calling and argumentative exchanges have turned him off. He also made the observation that he couldn’t understand the apparent hostility about political issues today, and that he doesn’t remember it ever being so extreme. To give you a sense of his perspective, he is a Vietnam veteran in his early 60s.

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

His complaint got me thinking about the tone of political discourse in general, and whether it’s really any worse today than it was at other times in our history.

A little research turned up some interesting but perhaps not surprising information about ugly political campaigns throughout America’s history.

For example, cites five examples of nasty politics that took place in the following presidential contests: Thomas Jefferson vs. John Adams in 1800, Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams in 1828, Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas in 1860, Grover Cleveland vs. James G. Blaine in 1884 and Herbert Hoover vs. Al Smith in 1928.

In 1800, Jefferson hired someone to write insults about John Adams, one of which was that Adams was a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” This may seem tame compared to political insults today, but it was extremely insulting in its time.

Adams responded with, “Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames ... female chastity violated ... children writhing on the pike? Great God of compassion and justice, shield my country from destruction.” Sounds a little like the political volleying about national security taking place today between President Barack Obama and his opponents, doesn’t it?

In the campaign of 1828, John Quincy Adams and his handlers accused Jackson of having the personality of a dictator, claimed that he was too uneducated (misspelled Europe), and leveled terrible insults at Jackson’s wife, who had been in an abusive marriage with a man who divorced her, which was considered a scandal at the time. She was called a “dirty black wench” and “a convicted adulteress” who engaged in “open and notorious lewdness.”

Jackson’s supporters responded that Adams had sold his wife’s maid as a concubine to the czar of Russia.

In 1860, Douglas said Lincoln was a “horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman.” He also stated that “Lincoln is the leanest, lankiest, most ungainly mass of legs and arms and hatchet face ever strung on a single frame.”

Lincoln’s campaign responded with taunts about Douglas’ height, referring to him as Little Giant (he was only 5 feet 4 inches tall), said “to be 5 feet nothing in height and about the same in diameter the other way.”

Cleveland was characterized as lecherous during his 1884 campaign against Blaine. In fact, Cleveland had fathered a child with a widow, which probably wouldn’t amount to much by today’s political standards, but the chant “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?” was used to taunt candidate Cleveland.

On the other side, Blaine was accused of corruption in his dealings with a railroad, which was confirmed in a letter he wrote, admitting that he knew about the dishonesty and instructing the person to whom the letter was written to “Burn this letter! Burn this letter!”

Smith lost to Hoover in 1928 largely because of an attack on Smith’s Catholic religious affiliation, which asserted that he had commissioned a 3,500-mile tunnel from the Holland Tunnel in New York to the Vatican in Rome and that the pope would influence all presidential decisions if Smith were elected.

This concern resurfaced during the 1960 presidential campaign, in which a generally unspoken but widespread fear circulated that if John F. Kennedy were elected he would allow his policies to be dictated by the Vatican.

In addition to nasty political discourse dating back to 1800, dirty political tricks in America first appeared as early as 1844, when a phony newspaper story was planted by the head of the Whigs, claiming that James Polk’s salves were branded with his initials, allegedly proving that the candidate sold slaves to finance his campaign. The Whigs also printed phony ballots that confused the names of Democratic and Whig electors, which was intended to mislead voters.

We tend to view current events through the prism of today’s standards, but as ugly as we may think political contests are today, it’s worth noting that they are not regulated by Marquess of Queensbury rules — that, in politics, anything goes, always has and always will.

As the saying goes, “All’s fair in love and war.” I would modify this adage to read: “All’s fair in love, war and politics.”

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog,

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