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CONNECTIONS: Character assassination, an American political tradition

Principles, reason, and policies don’t stand a chance against snappy character assassination, juicy alliteration, and fear mongering. What will the American public do?

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

I’m speechless.

The chant at the Republican convention was “Lock her up.”

The Democratic nominee for President of the United States should be jailed?

Shocking… or is it?

Victoria Claflin Woodhull was actually in jail when the votes were counted. She ran for President in 1870. She was running for the office before she had the legal right to vote. She was also too young. Born in Ohio in 1838, she was not yet 35, the age required to run for President. It seems jailing a woman with the audacity to run for President of the United States is not a new strategy. In Woodhull’s case the opposition needn’t have bothered. Woodhull did not receive a single electoral vote.

Victoria Woodhull, c. 1870, byt Mathew Brady.
Victoria Woodhull, c. 1870, by Mathew Brady.

But wait…Republican conventioneers also suggested Clinton be put before a firing squad and shot for treason or murder or both. That must be a bridge too far…beyond the pale…new and shocking. Yes?

No. In 1876, when Col. Bob Ingersoll gave a speech in Indianapolis in support of Republican Presidential candidate Rutherford Hayes: “I am opposed to the Democratic party and I will tell you why. Every State that seceded from the United States was a Democratic State. Every ordinance of secession that was drawn was drawn by a Democrat. Every man that endeavored to tear the old flag was a Democrat. Every man that tried to destroy this nation was a Democrat. Every man that shot Union soldiers was a Democrat. Every man that denied Union prisoners, even the worm-eaten crust…put the bullet through his loving, throbbing heart was and is a Democrat. Every man that loved slavery better than liberty was a Democrat. The man that assassinated Abraham Lincoln was a Democrat.”

In short: every traitor and murderer in 1876 was a Democrat.

But wait… insulting large segments of the voting public must be counterproductive.

Not exactly: In 1840, political strategist Thomas Elder suggested this: “Passion and prejudice, properly aroused and directed, would do about as well as principle and reason in a party contest.”

OK, but the character assassination and name calling: she is “Crooked Hillary” and he is a “narcissist, me-first, emotionally unstable tax evader.” We must be above unsupported allegation. Right?

John Quincy Adams by George P. A. Healy.
John Quincy Adams by George P. A. Healy.

1824: John Quincy Adams wrote about his presidential campaign: “Every liar and calumniator was at work day and night to destroy my reputation.”

1856: James Buchanan’s head tilted slightly to the left. Opponents claimed it was because he tried to hang himself. Since he was a bachelor with a male roommate, Andrew Jackson called him “Aunt Nancy” and Henry Clay affected a lisp in talking to him.

1896: William Jennings Bryan was called “a megalomaniac and a classic degenerate.” William Howard Taft was called “a fathead with the brains of a guinea pig” by Teddy Roosevelt.

Probably the most famous smear between presidential candidates never happened. Thomas Jefferson never called John Adams a hermaphrodite. But wait…

1800: In our earliest campaigns, the candidates did not campaign directly but employed surrogates. This included partisan newspaper editors. According to David McCullough’s biography of Adams, James Callender established a newspaper, the Richmond Examiner, and published pro-Jefferson, anti-Adams articles. Many were scathing indictments. While Jefferson was “an ornament to human nature,” Adams was “a repulsive pedant…gross hypocrite…egregious fool.”

Finally, Callender’s crowning achievement: He wrote Adams was “that strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness, a hideous, hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

In retaliation Adams’ people called Jefferson a “Godless atheist,” and “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw.” But Adams’ most effective strategy was to merely spread the rumor that Jefferson was dead so no use voting for him.

None of this is limited to our founding fathers or 19th-century presidential politics.

Edmund Muskie.
Edmund Muskie.

1972: Democratic Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine was the projected winner but voters began receiving phone calls late at night or early in the morning from rude voices that claimed Blacks were being bussed in from Harlem to work for Muskie.

The conservative editor of the Manchester Union Leader, William Loeb, published a letter, purportedly written by an ordinary citizen, that accused Muskie of using the word “Canuck” to refer to French Canadians.

During the Florida primary, a letter on Muskie campaign stationery was circulated stating that fellow candidate Hubert Humphrey had been arrested for drunk driving in 1967. Other letters on Muskie stationery claimed that prominent Democratic senator and presidential hopeful Henry “Scoop” Jackson had fathered a child with a 17-year-old girl (since both stories were completely fabricated, the faked letters were intended to reflect badly on Muskie).

In defending himself against this and other slurs, Muskie, standing outdoors before microphones and cameras, did lose his cool – was said to cry — many voters wondered if he was able to handle pressure. Muskie was finished as a candidate.

In the alternative we might just stick to policy goals without mention of the opponent. For example: “The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, lest Rome will become bankrupt. People must again learn to work instead of living on public assistance.”

Sadly, that was Cicero running for office in Rome in 55 B.C.E.: This is the USA more than 2,000 years later. Principles, reason, and policies don’t stand a chance against snappy character assassination, juicy alliteration, and fear mongering. What will the American public do? See through it, rise above it, vote intelligently? We’ll see. Because it is too much to hope that the candidates rather than the voters will be rendered speechless.


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