In the good ole days of the republic, during the 19th century, it was a cardinal principle of American politics that the man did not seek the office; instead, the office sought the man. This was especially true in presidential elections when candidates never took to the stump, especially if one held an office and was seeking a second term. That’s not to say that they were not involved, just not openly and actively involved.
Today it seems we have come full circle. Rather than concentrate on his work as president, like say, attending all of his intelligence briefings so he can know what’s going on in hotspots like Libya, President Obama has spent the better part of this year doing nothing but campaigning.
He can take to the stump and fly around the country on Air Force One but he seems to have little time to meet with world leaders. He can visit television shows like “The View,” “Comedy Central,” Jay Leno, and David Letterman, as well as hang with Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Katy Perry, but not with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Between his numerous rounds of golf, and his campaigning and partying, it’s little wonder the nation is in such a mess.
The 2012 campaign has also been unusually disgusting. Democrats have already depicted Mitt Romney as an uncaring rich guy, a felon, and a murderer. But modern campaigns are nothing compared to bygone days and historians are at odds over which one was the nastiest. And although candidates in those days did not actively campaign, their surrogates took the fight right to the enemy by airing attacks in the only media medium of the day, the newspapers.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson faced each other in two successive presidential elections, in 1796 and in 1800, and both were bloody.
One of Jefferson’s strongest adversaries was Timothy Dwight. Known as the “Pope of Connecticut,” he served as president of Yale University and the head of both the state Federalist Party and Congregational Church. A modern-day equivalent would be a person such as Pat Robertson serving as both the head of Virginia’s Republican Party and the state’s megachurch, all the while presiding over the University of Virginia. Such an arrangement probably would not go over very well today.
Dwight relentlessly attacked Jefferson and warned that if the Virginian ascended to the presidency, all churches would be made into “temples of reason,” “the Bible cast into a bonfire,” and “our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.”
Other Federalists were equally cruel. “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced,” penned one, and “the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes” under a President Jefferson.
Jeffersonian Republicans were almost as harsh toward President Adams, referring to him as a “blind, bald, crippled, toothless man,” a “hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson had two epic battles in 1824 and 1828. Adams was derided as a gambler, a pimp, and a Yankee, which was considered a very derogatory term at the time, something akin to a swindler. Jackson was attacked as a murderer “of helpless women and children” and an adulterer, while his mother was accused of being a prostitute.
Jackson’s beloved wife Rachel was depicted as a bigamist, a charge Jackson believed led to her untimely death from a heart attack soon after the 1828 campaign ended. President Jackson later vowed to kill those who had hurled such a destructive charge. On his deathbed in 1845, Jackson told those gathered at his bedside that he regretted not hanging Henry Clay, who he believed most responsible.
In 1872, Republicans denounced famous publisher Horace Greeley, the Democratic nominee, as an atheist, a communist, a free lover, a vegetarian, and an idiot. Democrats criticized President Ulysses S. Grant as a dictator, a loafer, a swindler, an ignoramus, a drunkard, and an utterly depraved horse jockey.
The disputed election of 1876, between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, was as bitter as they come. Hayes was accused of robbing from the dead and shooting his own mother in a fit of drunken rage, although he was a lifelong teetotaler. Tilden, a lifelong bachelor, was depicted as a womanizer who had affairs with married women and contracted syphilis from an Irish prostitute.
In 1884, Republicans depicted Grover Cleveland as the town drunk, a debaucher, a lecherous beast, a hangman, an obese nincompoop, and a drunken sot, while his opponent, James G. Blaine, was known in a campaign tune as the “continental liar from the state of Maine.”
And we thought we had it bad. But, alas, politics is what it is and will always be. We have one week to go and it will all be over, at least for a couple of years anyway.
This column appeared in the Laurel Leader Call (Laurel, MS) on Tuesday, October 30, 2012.