Bashing presidents has always been a national pastime

FAIR GAME

August 01, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington -- This summer, as his health care reform plan struggles and critics have come out of the woodwork, President Clinton and his aides have concluded that there is something new, and qualitatively different, about the way this president is being bashed.

"I don't suppose there's any public figure that's ever been subject to any more violent, personal attacks than I have, at least in modern history, anybody who's been president," Mr. Clinton said last month.

Mr. Clinton and his loyalists have been driven to the brink by everything from Rush Limbaugh's daily dose of sarcasm to the relentless Whitewater-related questions from Republicans and the mainstream press. They have railed at speculative articles in conservative publications about his sex life and a Jerry Falwell-peddled video quoting conspiracy theorists who link Mr. Clinton with nearly every crime known to man.

White House communications director Mark Gearan says such attacks on the character of the president are virtually "unprecedented." Adds Paul Begala, a political adviser to Mr. Clinton: "The criticism is far more personal. I don't think it has ever reached this level."

It may seem that way when one's hero is on the receiving end. But history suggests something else: namely, that the only place invective of this nature is unique is in the minds of Mr. Clinton and his baby-boom generation advisers.

"He certainly is not a standout here," says Stephen E. Ambrose, a noted presidential historian. "Anyone who knows anything about history knows that this goes with the territory. The only thing different is that these guys on the White House staff today -- these people in their 30s and 40s -- their idea of history is yesterday."

Thomas Jefferson, one of the nation's founders, was dubbed "Mad Tom" by his political opponents. Abraham Lincoln was routinely lampooned in political cartoons of his day as an ape and a baboon.

Andrew Johnson was denounced as a heathen because he didn't belong to an organized church and was called a traitor on the Senate floor. He was impeached -- and came within one vote of being kicked out of office -- for doing no more than trying to incorporate the South back into the union after the Civil War.

For 50 years, Democrats blamed Herbert Hoover -- unfairly, economists and historians agree -- for the Great Depression. He was even shunned by the man who succeeded him, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Roosevelt, in turn, was considered a traitor to his class by Republicans and the Eastern establishment. FDR was dismissed contemptuously by childhood friends as "that man in the White House."

Richard Nixon, the modern president most hated by liberals and press, arrived in Washington from California with a nickname, "Tricky Dick," and left office accused of high crimes and misdemeanors.

Sometimes, historians say, the criticism is fair. Other times, you wonder.

Gerald R. Ford, perhaps the most athletic man ever to occupy the Oval Office, is best remembered as a stumble-bum and a klutz -- courtesy of an impersonation done by an up-and-coming young comedian named Chevy Chase.

Lyndon B. Johnson inherited a war in Vietnam. When he escalated it, it cost him far more than a second term. In the last year of his presidency, Johnson's advisers tried to schedule him for as many military bases as they could -- they were the only places Johnson could go and not hear a chant that haunted him the rest of his life.

"LBJ! LBJ! How many kids have you killed today?"

"There may be something a little beyond the recent norm in Clinton's case, but it's nothing like in Johnson's time -- or Roosevelt's," says William Miller, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia. "The sizzling hatred of 'that man in the White House' was beyond anything Clinton has yet felt. And the feelings of intense hatred of LBJ in 1967 and 1968 were wider and deeper -- and the expression of it in vigorous terms was certainly worse than anything going on today."

No equivalent

Mr. Miller makes the point that the explosion of media in the Information Age has resulted in many more outlets for critical words and images of the president. Technologically, at least, there was no equivalent in previous generations to "Beavis and Butt-head" -- the popular MTV cartoon characters that added their voices to the ridicule of Bill Clinton.

In addition, there has been a relaxing of standards of taste in America's mass culture that makes vulgar assertions more easily accessible.

Chevy Chase's skits in which "President Ford" can't chew gum and walk at the same time certainly seem tame compared with a Phil Hartman bit that "Saturday Night Live" aired last March in which "President Clinton" joked about sleeping with women and shooting Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Still, sexual peccadilloes, real or imagined, have been grist for presidential bashers for two centuries, except perhaps for a brief period in the post-World War II era.

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