Dirty campaigns are as old as dirt

Andrew Clayton & Robert Thurston

October 16, 1992|By Andrew Clayton & Robert Thurston

RECENT political campaigns have put Americans through two sad rituals -- candidates trade degrading accusations and then media commentators bemoan that cheapness. Why don't politicians talk about the issues?

The answer does not lie in some modern malaise -- nor is it the "fault" of television. A look at some of the worst in earlier contests puts today's races in perspective.

First, "sound bite" is only the current expression for the catchy lines politicians have used for more than 150 years. At least today sound bites say something.

In the 1840 presidential campaign, Whigs chanted "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too." William Henry Harrison, the Whig ticket leader, had won a major battle at Tippecanoe in the War of 1812. John Tyler was his running mate.

Harrison's slogan conveyed nothing about his ideas for the country, which was suffering through an economic depression. Still, he won handily, capturing the popular imagination not on the issues but by identifying with ordinary folks and declaring his affinity for hard cider and log cabins, despite the fact that he was born in a Virginia mansion.

Vicious campaigning dates at least to 1800 when Thomas Jefferson challenged John Adams. Tough contemporary issues, like foreign policy and freedom of speech, were virtually ignored while voters (all white males at the time, of course) savored rumors about the nominees' characters.

Adams' supporters claimed Jefferson, a widowed slave owner, had slept with his slave, Sally Hemmings, and made improper advances to a married woman when he was younger.

One writer charged that Jefferson was an atheist and that the election hinged on "national regard or disregard to the religion of Jesus Christ." A Jefferson victory would result in "female chastity violated" and "children writhing on the pike and halberd." One Adams man described Jefferson's followers as "poison-sucking toads."

The opposition replied in kind: A Jeffersonian newspaper editor called the president that "old, querulous, bald, blind, crippled, toothless Adams." He was even accused of wanting to restore monarchy in America.

Our presidential elections have long been nasty, personal affairs, stressing character issues before substantive matters. It's not the fault of the media.

In fact, television, and radio before it, have probably improved our contests. No longer can whispering campaigns seriously undermine candidates. The media bring any ugly rumors to the voters, and the nominees must confront (or stonewall) the charges.

Last winter, Gennifer Flowers' press conference and the rebuttal on "60 Minutes" by Bill and Hillary Clinton allowed us to judge the players personally and instantly.

More important, the media today make it increasingly impossible for presidential candidates to rely solely on clever quips or symbols.

Analysts love to cite the images of Willie Horton and flags waving in the 1988 campaign, but they didn't produce victory for George Bush. Americans preferred him because the economy appeared to be healthy and because Michael Dukakis could not engender trust and enthusiasm.

This year, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton are following tradition by tailoring speeches and promises to the specific groups they address. But television will not let them get away with it entirely, partly because of some excellent reporting, but more because we see them ourselves. Being many things to many people is no longer clever political maneuvering -- it's now exposed as pandering and waffling.

Candidates are behind the times, if anything, and have not fully awakened to the exposure they get on the air.

A final point on the positive side for television and radio is that political bosses no longer select the candidates. The "brokered" convention is a thing of the past; the last one was 1920. It is probably no accident that that was also the last presidential race without radio.

Of course, the media's omnipresence in politics is hardly an unmitigated blessing. TV does showcase negative ads. Politicians and their handlers continue to manipulate events and images, yet voters have become more skeptical of political marketing.

Ross Perot appealed to people for a time partly because he wasn't blow-dried, and he lost ground because of hard questions about his background and ideas.

Dwelling on our current political shallowness ignores our history of nastiness and belittles the progress we've made, however limited. Television involves more ordinary citizens than ever before in the process of selection and debate, extending the republic's democratic traditions. TV has brought us cleaner campaigns to boot.

Americans will never get completely away from character issues, nor should we. Meanwhile, watch your television to stay informed, skeptical, and probably mad, too. But don't say that the tube drags us down; we're only watching our own system at work, and it could be a whole lot worse. In fact, it used to be that way.

Andrew Clayton and Robert Thurston are associate professors in the Department of History, Miami University.

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