Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dirty political campaigns? You ain't seen nothin'.

Every time I see someone whine about how underhanded and dirty one side or the other is playing in this election, I have to laugh. Here is a short history of dirty tricks and insults that previous presidential elections have enjoyed, from a New York Times interview with an author on this topic last year:
Q: You describe the intense mudslinging that went on during the 19th century, with accusations being thrown around of infidelity, substance abuse, cross dressing, and treason, among others. Has campaigning gotten any more civilized over time? How have mudslinging and other forms of negative campaigning evolved throughout U.S. history?

A: I think the mudslinging definitely is still a big part of our election process, but it’s less broad and vulgar. For instance, there is less aimed at other people’s physical attributes. The 19th century was very big on that. In the election of 1800, one of the dirtiest in American history, the venomous hack writer James Callendar (secretly hired by Thomas Jefferson) assailed then-President John Adams as a “repulsive pedant” and “a hideous hermaphroditical character,” whatever that means. Later in the 19th century, Martin Van Buren was accused of wearing women’s corsets (by Davy Crockett, no less) and James Buchanan (who had a congenital condition that caused his head to tilt to the left) was accused of have unsuccessfully tried to hang himself. Oh, and Abraham Lincoln reportedly had stinky feet.

The 20th century began this way; at the 1912 Republican National Convention, Teddy Roosevelt, wearing a sombrero and smoking a cigar, cheerfully referred to William Howard Taft, the sitting President and Roosevelt’s former vice president, as “a rat in a corner.” (The rodent motif is popular — FDR liked to call Alf Landon, his 1936 opponent, “the White Mouse who wants to live in the White House.”) You won’t find this kind of thing out in the open too much today, although you still see it in some of the nastier primary campaigns, such as the hatchet job done on John McCain in 2000 by his fellow Republicans.

Q: What role did the media play in early elections? What was the relationship between journalists and presidential candidates? How did it change over time?

A: The first attack I found against a newspaper came in 1800, when a Federalist poet decided that his party’s defeat at the hands of the Republicans could be blamed entirely on the media. He penned this bit of doggerel.

And lo! In meretricious dress
Forth comes a strumpet called “THE PRESS.”
Whose haggard, unrequested charms
Rush into every blaggard’s arms.

In early American elections, newspapers — then the only form of media around — played a huge role. Papers were unabashed party cheerleaders, rooting openly for their candidates and leading the way in smearing the candidate of the opposing party. Being trashed by a 19th century newspaper was no joke. They really sank their teeth into you. Even no less an authority than the New York Times was guilty of this. In the epic William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan contest of 1896, the Times, which supported McKinley, published a series of articles in which prominent alienists discussed quite seriously whether Bryan was crazy. One expert wrote: “I don’t think Bryan is ordinarily crazy … but I should like to examine him as a degenerate.”

By the latter part of the 20th century, this type of blatant electioneering for candidates had pretty much died out, although newspapers obviously still have their preferences. But certain television networks and talk radio shows, on both sides, have taken up the slack with a vengeance, and I think they are just as influential among voters as the old party newspapers were.

Q: What was the ugliest campaign in history?

A: So many dirty elections, so little time… There have been stolen elections (the Rutherford Hayes - Samuel Tilden contest in 1876 was certainly stolen by Republicans in the South, a foreshadowing of 2000, and the Democrats may have altered the vote enough in Cook County in 1960 to let John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon). But “ugly” has a different connotation. I would have to say that 1964 was the ugliest presidential contest I have researched. President Lyndon Johnson, seeking his first elective term after taking over for the assassinated JFK, set out not just to defeat Goldwater, but to destroy him and create a huge mandate for himself.

Not that destroying Goldwater, who believed that field commanders should be given tactical nuclear weapons, was all that difficult. But Johnson’s dirty tricks were at least as bad as those of Nixon’s Watergate bagmen eight years later. He created a top secret after-hours group known as the “anti-campaign” and “the five o’clock club.” These sixteen political operatives, in close contact with the White House, set out to influence the perception of Goldwater in America’s popular culture. They put out a Goldwater joke book entitled You Can Die Laughing. They even created a children’s coloring book, in which your little one could happily color pictures of Goldwater dressed in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan.

This committee also wrote letters to columnist Ann Landers purporting to be from ordinary citizens terrified of the prospect of a Goldwater presidency. And they sent CIA agent E. Howard Hunt to infiltrate Goldwater campaign headquarters, posing as a volunteer, where he gained access to advance copies of Goldwater speeches and fed them to the White House, causing Goldwater to complain that whenever he put forth an initiative, the White House immediately trumped it.

But perhaps the ugliest thing about the 1964 election was Johnson’s treatment of the press. He remarked to an aide that “reporters are puppets,” and had his people feed them misleading information about the Goldwater campaign. One White House aide wrote a secret memo saying, “It might be healthy to get some respected columnist to give wider circulation to adverse Goldwater impact on the stock market.” A well-known financial columnist was then influenced into writing two columns on that very topic.
The author goes on to say that "This was perhaps the last election in which the media could be so easily manipulated," but I think it is possible that the media can still be manipulated this way - as long as the manipulation corresponds to the already-existing prejudices of the reporter.