When Politicians Attack

Negative campaigning and down-and dirty ads go back to our Founding Fathers, who really knew how to impugn a rival

March 07, 2000|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

With all the grousing about the negative tone of the presidential campaign this year, one might well wonder how the Founding Fathers would react to the sniping and back-biting.

They'd probably say something like this to today's candidates: YOU CREAM-PUFFS! YOU MILKSOPS! You don't know the first thing about negative campaigning!

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, those are guys who could talk about what it's really like to get slammed. George W. Bush and Al Gore might feel aggrieved, but no one has yet called either of them a whoremonger, a charge Jefferson endured. John McCain and Bill Bradley might complain about nasty television ads, but so far neither has been insulted as the son of a slut, as Hamilton was.

Likewise, as of this early date, none of the candidates has yet been labeled a murderer, a "baboon" or the profligate father of bastard children, as, respectively, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Grover Cleveland were.

As an electorate, we act like virgins every four years when political campaigns take a nasty turn. Each election cycle, we seem newly surprised and offended once the attacking and counter-attacking commence. Collectively, though, we're in denial. Negative campaigning has existed for as long as the union itself, often in a far more vituperative fashion that makes today's proceedings look more like a sewing circle than a political brawl.

"Compared to today, the politics of the 19th and early 20th century were utterly savage," says Cliff Brown, a political scientist at Union College in New York. "It's nowhere near as dirty as the campaigns of the past."

We lament the end of a more civil age that never actually existed. "It's like a fable we tell ourselves, that politics used to be about reason and principle," says Daniel Czitrom, chairman of the history department at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. "The truth is, that past is a myth."

High-mindedness is more the exception in American political life. As the famous historian Henry Adams observed, from the very beginning, American politics can more accurately be described as nothing more than the "organization of hatreds."

Today, media critique the tone of the campaigns, yet during the country's formative years, the press was itself the instrument for the most strident attacks. "We have this expectation of objective media today, but at one time the media were controlled by the parties, and they'd slog it out against each other on behalf of their parties," says Phil Klinkner, professor of government at Hamilton College in New York.

Points of view

The conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton, which dominated American politics in the country's early years, was played out in newspapers and pamphlets controlled by the two luminaries, who happened to intensely detest each other. Hamilton was lambasted as the son of a prostitute and was cornered into the damaging confession of having an affair with a married woman in order to fend off more serious charges of misuse of government funds as treasury secretary. Jefferson was derided as an atheist and Jacobin. The first rumors about his intimacy with Sally Hemings, a slave at his Monticello plantation, were reported in newspapers by a former ally turned opponent.

Other heroes from the nation's early years were also tarred by the opposition press. Adams was routinely referred to as "His Rotundity" and shown sitting on a throne because of his perceived soft spot for the British. Even the sainted George Washington was cuffed about in the press.

Having embarked on the low road, American politics stayed there into the 19th century. One of the most vicious campaigns occurred when Andrew Jackson challenged the incumbent, John Quincy Adams, for the presidency in 1828. Implying that "Old Hickory" was a murderer, Jackson's detractors distributed handbills showing six coffins, a reference to Jackson's days as a military leader and his tendency to execute men after court-martials.

Jackson's opponents also lit into his wife, Rachel, accusing her of being a bigamist when it was revealed that her divorce from her first husband was technically imperfect. Jackson won the election, but Rachel died soon after his victory. Jackson always blamed his opponents' attacks for weakening her heart.

Lincoln was portrayed in cartoons as a baboon, a madman and a backwoods, shoeless ignoramus. Rumors circulated that he was of mixed race, an inflammatory accusation at the time. (Three-quarters of a century later, word similarly spread that Franklin Roosevelt was tainted by Jewish blood. Some elements derided him as "Roosenfelt.")

In the campaign of 1884, Grover Cleveland was attacked as having fathered an illegitimate daughter. "Ma, ma, where's my pa?" became the slogan of his Republican opponents. "Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha," his supporters replied after he beat James G. Blaine.

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