Political smear tactics are as old as our nation

July 20, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Are the Democrats smearing Karl Rove because he or somebody else in the White House smeared Joseph C. Wilson IV because he smeared President Bush over false claims that Iraq sought uranium fuel in Niger?

The charges and countercharges over the leak that former Ambassador Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA agent are only the latest manifestations of the politics of personal destruction, which are as old as the nation itself. Getting even is as American as apple pie.

The art of character assassination in public affairs goes back at least to the bitter personal and political rivalry between Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, and Thomas Jefferson, the first secretary of state. It often erupted in the publications and personal letters of the day, with Jefferson slyly working anonymously behind his ally, James Madison.

In 1792, Hamilton accused Madison of "insidious insinuations" that, as President George Washington's treasury secretary, Hamilton had "unfaithfully" used public money "to put undue advantages in the pockets of speculators and to support the [public] debt at an artificial price for their benefit."

In a famous letter to Edward Carrington of Virginia, Hamilton also said of Jefferson and Madison that "they have a womanish attachment to France and a womanish resentment against Great Britain" that, if each ran its course, would lead to "open war" with the British.

Washington, in a conciliatory manner not seen at the White House these days, stepped in and urged that "instead of wounding suspicions, and irritable charges, there may be liberal allowances, mutual forbearances and temporizing yieldings on all sides."

But the first president's words did no good. Jefferson, while assuring Washington he would write or say no harsh word about Hamilton, at one point urged Madison in writing: "For God's sake, my dear sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public."

Washington threw up his hands and Hamilton and Jefferson continued their feud through the partisan newspapers of the day, even as Jefferson, in a letter to Edmund Randolph, Washington's attorney general, deplored "the indecency" of "newspaper squabbling between two public ministers." But, he added, "for the present, lying and scribbling must be free to those who are mean enough to deal with them in the dark."

The politics of personal destruction had their most notorious and tangible episode in 1804, after Hamilton, in letters to friends, had referred to Aaron Burr of New York as an "embryo Caesar" and was reported indirectly to have expressed "a despicable opinion" of him.

Hamilton refused to withdraw or apologize for "inferences which may be drawn by others" or "any rumors which may be afloat." But he did say he had never attributed to Burr "any instance of dishonorable conduct, nor relate to his private character."

That didn't satisfy Burr, by this time vice president in the Jefferson administration. He challenged Hamilton to a duel and shot him dead when Hamilton intentionally fired into the air. Burr fled under charges of murder. Three years later, he was arrested, tried and acquitted on grounds the prosecution could not produce two witnesses to vow they had seen the foul deed.

Since then, there has seldom been a shortage of the use of smear and character assassination in American politics.

But in the early days of the republic, such spoken or written slurs traveled only by word of mouth or mail by horseback and therefore required time and greater effort to spread.

Today, in the era of mass communications, the politics of personal destruction can be practiced with instantaneous reach to every city and town in the country. And with vastly greater negative result - not only to the target, but to the quality of public discourse.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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