Political mudslinging has a long and successful history

Ideas

December 02, 2007|By Theo Lippman | Theo Lippman,Special to The Sun

In the debate of Democratic presidential candidates in Nevada, Sen. Hillary Clinton rebuked John Edwards for his charge that she was "part of a corrupt political class." She said, "I don't mind taking hits on my record on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and out of the Republican playbook."

Ahh, mud. Where would this nation without it? No one knows. We have never not had it. Dirty politics is more American than your mother's apple pie and booing the Brooklyn Dodgers.

How dirty is mud? Last winter a former U.S. senator from Florida died, and every newspaper obituary that I have been able to read on line said little or nothing of his senatorial accomplishments and failures, but most of them quoted him as throwing the most creative, imaginative, enduring mud in the whole history of mud throwing:.

The late senator of the obituaries, George Smathers, was a member of the House of Representative. He was a moderate. In 1950 he challenged the incumbent senator, Claude Pepper, a liberal, in the Democratic primary.

There he was quoted as saying several times to rural crowds on the stump: "Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and his sister was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy."

Smathers smothered Pepper by 10 points (and then a Republican by 52 points).He became a buddy of John Kennedy and served three terms.

Do-gooder political scientists argue that negative campaigning is bad for the thrower. "He who slings mud loses ground," Adlai Stevenson is often quoted as saying. Odd. In 1952 and 1956 when he ran against Dwight Eisenhower in presidential contests. Ike didn't throw mud, but his running mate Richard Nixon was a mud-slinger nonpareil. And Stevenson lost in two landslides.

William Safire, who was later a speechwriter for Nixon, then a New York Times columnist, wrote a column in 2000 with a corollary, which, perhaps, Senator Clinton recalled in Nevada.

Safire quoted Stevenson, then wrote: "But he who lets mud be slung on him without exposing the mud slinger loses elections."

One more thing. Smathers never gave the speech quoted in his obituaries. Some unknown reporter on the campaign trail wrote it as a joke or a hoax.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired Sun editorial writer and columnist and an author.

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