Is the vitriolic slander in american politics new, or is it a intrinsic and historic layer to american governance?
The current presidential-campaign season has been marked by complaints that it has been inordinately abusive and untruthful. There is no question that some of the allegations being tossed around by the candidates or their surrogates are distorted and unfair. But there is much to question when pundits and other political scolds decry the “unprecedented” negativity of the campaigns.
Political vitriol is a familiar enough characteristic of American history. In 1800, in the first interparty contest, the Federalists warned that presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson, because of his sympathy expressed at the outset of the French Revolution, was “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw” who would put opponents under the guillotine. Jefferson’s supporters countered that opponent John Adams was a “hideous hermaphroditical character”—half man, half woman.
In campaign-sanctioned broadsides and newspapers, John Quincy Adams was called “a pimp,” his opponent in 1828, Andrew Jackson, “a bigamist” whose wife was “a slut.” Abraham Lincoln was called “the original gorilla,” and Ulysses S. Grant “a Neanderthal.” Later, Grover Cleveland was accused of fathering an illegitimate child.
William Jennings Bryan was dubbed “a crazy degenerate” and wild-eyed radical who would redistribute wealth. Later still, Franklin Roosevelt was called “a demented paralytic cripple,” Harry Truman “a fellow traveler”—a communist, in other words—and Barry Goldwater “a dangerously psychotic warmonger,” not by their opponents themselves but by surrogates and allies.
Character assassination so often trumps policy differences in presidential campaigns for a couple of reasons. Despite all the public hand-wringing about negative advertising, political veterans will tell you that it persists because, more often than not, it works. But tearing down the other guy has another attraction: It can be a substitute for building much of a case for what the mudslinger will do once in office.
Often enough the candidates themselves don’t know what this might be. Told by John Kennedy that he would be serving at the White House, Arthur Schlesinger asked: “What will I be doing there?” “I don’t know Arthur,” Kennedy replied. “I don’t even know what I’ll be doing there, but you can be sure we will both be busy more than eight hours a day.”
And even when they are more forthcoming, candidates who make promises are risking trouble. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ran on a platform of peace and prosperity—”he kept us out of war.” Less than a month after starting his second term, he led the country into World War I.
Newspaper ads in 1928 for the business-friendly Herbert Hoover promised that he would put “a chicken in every pot; a car in every garage.” A year later, the Great Depression made a mockery of the campaign slogan. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt would have preferred to be labeled a chameleon on plaid than clarify the meaning of his New Deal. In 1940, however, he vowed that this nation would not go to war—which opened him to later charges of deceit when we did.
The greatest deterrent to negative campaigns has been independent voters, the fence-sitters who, despite remaining a distinct minority, exert considerable influence in shaping electoral results. The parties struggle to figure out what will attract the undecided. But drawing them to one side or the other is often beyond candidates’ control. An uptick or downturn in the economy, a slip of the tongue or a witty rejoinder in a debate, or an October surprise can make the difference. At times, though, an intangible like one candidate’s greater personal charm or appearance—such as Kennedy’s in his first debate with Nixon—can become a decisive consideration. Like it or not, negative ads are also a possible difference-maker.
Despite its flaws, the American electoral system has produced Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and Harry Truman. “I know nothing grander . . . the triumphant result of faith in humankind, than a well-contested American national election,” Walt Whitman declared. Nonetheless, our presidential elections could certainly benefit from less posturing and more honesty about candidates’ future plans. The political class might be surprised by how many more votes straight talk could win than television ads appealing to our worst angels.
Mr. Dallek is the author, most recently, of “The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953” (HarperCollins, 2010). He is writing a book about John F. Kennedy and his advisers.
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