From Washington to 'Slick Willie'

August 01, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon

Clinton-bashers have their own little industry, complete with a radio network, "Slick Willie" T-shirts and bumper stickers that read, "Impeach President Clinton -- and her husband, too."

Such attacks may be tasteless, even vicious -- and the opposition this time more organized than usual -- but throughout American history, character assassination has gone with the job of president.

* In 1789, John Armstrong, a supporter of George Washington, lamented that "a caricature has already appeared . . . a disloyal and profane allusion." Armstrong was referring to a cartoon that depicted President Washington riding on a donkey led by an aide named David Humphreys.

Underneath were written the words:

"The glorious time has come to pass

"When David shall conduct an ass."

* When he wasn't accusing Thomas Jefferson of gross personal misconduct, Jefferson's nemesis James Thomson Callender was assailing his political skills. It would have been advantageous to Jefferson's reputation, Callender wrote in 1802, "if his head had been cut off five minutes before" he began his inaugural address.

* Days after Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural, Rep. Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio rose on the House floor to complain that the speech was "written . . . with forked tongue and crooked counsel. . . ."

Four years later, in the campaign of 1864, Rep. Samuel Cox, another Ohio congressman, said of Lincoln: "Think of it; in the very midst of this strife . . . this executive trifler, this retailer of smutty stories, this vulgar tyrant over men's thoughts, opinions, presses, letters, persons and lives, rejects the blessed opportunity which the Angel of Peace tenders to our afflicted land."

* One hundred and ten years ago, the delicate question of Grover Cleveland's illegitimate child was handled by political opponents with this sensitive little ditty:

"Ma, ma, where's my pa?

"Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha."

* In 1948, when Harry Truman called the 80th Congress "the worst in history," House Majority Leader Charles Halleck replied that Truman was "the worst president" in history. Ohio Congressman Cliff Clevenger went further, calling Truman "a Missouri jackass."

* In 1961, President John F. Kennedy entertained some out-of-town newspaper editors at the White House. One of them, E. M. "Ted" Dealey, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, told the president that where he came from, folks wanted a man "on horseback" to lead the nation.

"Many people in Texas and the Southwest," he added, "think you are riding Caroline's tricycle."

* President Richard M. Nixon, pelted by demonstrators in Caracas, Venezuela, and heckled in San Jose, Calif., belittled by Eisenhower, reviled by the liberal establishment, denounced as a "fascist" on college campuses, had so many enemies that even when he did something great, he found himself dodging insults.

When Nixon went to China on his historic visit, some California reporters asked arch-conservative Republican John G. Schmitz for a comment.

"I don't mind Nixon's going to China," Schmitz quipped. "It's his coming back I object to."

* Jimmy Carter came to Washington after the Watergate years, promising, "I will never lie to you." But an enterprising young journalist, Steven Brill, chronicled some fibs in a tough essay titled, "Jimmy Carter's Pathetic Lies."

* The tone of the Democrats' cheerfully vicious, generation-long bashing of Ronald Reagan is probably best epitomized by a political ad from 1966 when Mr. Reagan ran against incumbent California Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown.

"I'm running against an actor," Pat Brown intoned into a camera that showed him speaking to a class of black schoolchildren. "And you know who it was who shot Lincoln, don't ya?"

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