Clinton has competition for most vilified president title

December 29, 1997|By Paul Boller

OF WHAT president was it said that he was a ''traitor to the people,'' a ''usurper'' and a ''political degenerate''? Bill Clinton? No, it was George Washington.

What president had the following brickbat thrown at him: ''The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the president of the United States''? Bill Clinton? Wrong again -- it was Abraham Lincoln.

Oval office nitwit

What president was called, among other things, a Swollen-Headed Nitwit, an Unprincipled Charlatan, a Ham Actor, an Imposter, Public Enemy No. 1, a Socialist, Svengali, a Sorcerer? Bill Clinton? No, it was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Mr. Clinton has surely had a rough time of it since entering presidential politics in 1992, but he isn't the only chief executive who has been savaged by his enemies. President-bashing is, in fact, an ancient if not particularly honorable practice in the United States.

From almost the beginning of the American republic, the American people have been rough on their presidents, especially the competent ones. They called John Adams a fool and a criminal; Thomas Jefferson a coward and an atheist; Andrew Jackson a thief and a murderer; Martin Van Buren sly, selfish and treacherous; James K. Polk mendacious and mediocre; Ulysses Grant a crook, drunkard and ignoramus; Chester A. Arthur an accomplice in the assassination of James A. Garfield; Grover Cleveland a wife-beater; and Woodrow Wilson a syphilitic. But the presidents whom most historians today regard as the nation's greatest -- George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt -- came in for especially fulgurous denunciations.

Washington certainly received a great deal of adulation when he was president, but he was also the target of venomous criticism during his eight years in office. Newspapers like the National Gazette and the Aurora, outraged by his policies, blasted him as arrogant, treacherous, dishonest, despotic, stupid, crooked and tyrannical.

The vilification became so intense, in fact, that Washington, deeply hurt, wanted to retire at the end of his first term. Persuaded by his friends to serve another term for the good of the country, he gave the shortest inaugural address in American history, making basically only two terse points: (1) Thanks for re-election, and (2) if you don't like what I'm doing, you can impeach me.

Honest Abe

But Washington had an easier time of it than Lincoln did. Lincoln was undoubtedly the most trashed president we've ever had. The assaults on his character, personality and policies were unremitting from the day of his election until the day of his assassination.

In 1864, Harper's, which rather liked Lincoln, listed with dismay some of the epithets that his enemies in the Northern press enjoyed flinging at him: Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Monster, Ignoramus, Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant, Fiend, Butcher, Ape, Demon, Beast, Baboon, Gorilla, Imbecile. One New York newspaper got into the habit of referring to him as ''that hideous baboon at the other end of the avenue'' and suggested that ''Barnum should buy and exhibit him as a zoological curiosity.''

Like Lincoln and Washington, FDR had his haters, too. Although many Americans adored the New Deal president, there were many whose contempt for him approached the pathological.

''No phenomenon of the times is more disturbing than the persistent hatred of President Roosevelt which finds a more and more poisonous expression among a considerable section of the American people,'' reported columnist Marquis Child in 1938. ''No slander is too vile, no canard too preposterous, to find voice among those who regard the President as their mortal enemy.''

Not only did Roosevelt haters call him a Communist and denounce the New Deal as a ''Red Deal,'' but they also accused him of stealing money from the government, diverting funds from the March of Dimes for his own use, and being involved in the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and the assassination of Huey Long.

Muddy water

Frank and forthright criticism of a president's policies is, of course, essential to the American system. But reckless slander muddies the waters; it stands in the way of a fair appraisal of a president's performance.

Still, a certain amount of vilification seems to come with the territory. And with the rise of radio and TV talk shows, the means for its disseminations have multiplied enormously since the days of Washington, Lincoln and FDR. Mr. Clinton has been ''the most criticized figure in the history of modern talk radio,'' says one pol.

Without fire in the belly, it's said, you can't become president; but if you become president, you'd better have a thick skin, too. At the end of his first term, Mr. Clinton complained that he had been subjected ''to more assault than any previous president'' but insisted he could ''live with it.'' Well, he has no choice, as most of his predecessors learned soon after entering the White House. Still, unrelenting character assassination becomes tiresome as well as counterproductive after a while.

Several years ago, that sturdy Republican conservative Barry Goldwater chided the Clinton-bashers: ''Get off his back and let him be president!'' It's not a bad idea.

Paul F. Boller Jr. is a professor emeritus at Texas Christian University and author of ''Presidential Anecdotes, Presidential Campaigns'' and ''Presidential Wives.''

Pub Date: 12/29/97

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