Here's mud in your eye

THOMAS V. DIBACCO

April 20, 1992|By Thomas V. DiBacco

AS THE presidential race heats up, the campaign rhetoric will do the same. So don't be surprised if by the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November some pundit calls this presidential race the dirtiest in American history.

But American political campaigns have been steeped in negative campaigning since the 19th century, when candidates created their own newspapers for the purpose of spreading dirt on their opponents.

In 1828, for example, President John Quincy Adams was forced to suffer the scurrilous campaign libel that he and Mrs. Adams had had premarital sex. Then there was the 1852 presidential race involving Franklin Pierce, described by opponents as "the Fainting General" of the Mexican War.

According to one campaign attack, General Pierce "tumbled from one horse just as he was getting into one fight . . . fainted and fell into the opening of the second . . . got sick and had to go to bed on the eve of a third, and . . . came pretty near getting into a fourth, missing it by only an hour." There were also accusations about Pierce's problems with alcohol, with opponents suggesting that he was "a hero of many a well-fought bottle."

Abraham Lincoln had to face the campaign music of his three alleged sins, "filthy story telling, lying, and thieving." And no campaign was filthier than that of 1884, when Democrat Grover Cleveland was accused of fathering an illegitimate child and the GOP's James Blaine of being on the take. Republicans rushed to make up their verse about the wayward candidate: 'Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa?' But Democrats responded, "Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!"

The assets of negative advertising, according to the Federal Trade Commission, outweigh the liabilities. That was the conclusion of the FTC in 1971, when after years of study by marketing experts it permitted business firms to engage in comparative advertising. For the first time since 1914, when the FTC was created, companies could slamdunk their competitors by name (no more Brand Xs). Since that time, negative advertising has permeated radio, TV, and print media.

The basic argument that the FTC and marketing experts used in allowing comparative advertising is that the more the consumer knows about products, the more informed the choice. Carried over to politics, the argument is the same: The more warts that are exposed about a candidate, the better the process of arriving at a decision by voters.

To be sure, some candidates by the 20th century appeared to shun negative advertising. Democrat Adlai Stevenson seemed to be the epitome of propriety in his 1952 and 1956 candidacies, but, as the latter campaign came to an end, Stevenson thrust a stiletto into President Dwight Eisenhower's side, suggesting that Ike was too old to continue in the White House. The gambit worked for a while, giving Stevenson his best showing in the polls during the entire campaign, but foreign events in the last 10 days before the election worked to Ike's advantage.

Of course, some Americans may not like negative campaigning, more hopeful of stirring, positive pronouncements. But pious platitudes -- the rhetorical baggage of so many candidates -- also turn off voters.

So what's the remedy?

The solution is not to clean up the language so much as it is to get candidates with fewer skeletons in their political closets.

Perhaps most of all, Americans just have to recognize that politics is one of those areas of life that don't lend themselves to highfalutin' language. As the 18th century author William Godwin noted, "society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness."

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University in Washington.

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