How Low Can You Go?

The references to the size of certain body parts in the recent Republican “debate” are causing many to sigh in despair over how low the political campaign has gotten. We’ve also seen a candidate deliberately spread falsehoods about an opponent’s staying in the race and send out misleading – at best – “get out the vote” flyers. This  presidential campaign seems to be filled with all manner of nastiness, and we’re only getting started.

Ah, for the good ol’ days, when campaigns were matters of decency, fairness, and dignity….

1972: Edmund Muskie was the early favorite for the Democratic nomination, and a significant threat to Nixon’s re-election. The press had all but anointed him going into the Florida primary. Then obviously fake letters appeared on his campaign stationery that stated that Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey was arrested for drunk driving in 1967, and Henry “Scoop” Jackson had fathered a child with an underage girl. Other posters and ads came out suggesting his support for minority (i.e. black) issues. Muskie denied all of that, but it turned people off so much that he came in fourth. His campaign was finished. The nastiness was later revealed to be the work of Nixon campaign staffers Kenneth Clawson and Dwight Chapin.

1896: Citing an anonymous “alienist”, the New York Times published an essay claiming Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan was certifiably insane. A “megalomaniac” and “classic degenerate” were the terms used.

1884: It came out during the campaign that Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland, before his marriage, had fathered a child with widow Maria Halpin. The Republicans jumped on this, publishing cartoons of a woman carrying a baby calling after Cleveland with cries of “I want my Pa!” They continued to taunt him with a chant of “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?” Cleveland wasn’t fazed; he owned up to the affair and noted that he’d been paying child support regularly and honestly. When he won the election, his supporters answered the Republicans’ taunt with “Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!’

1876: When the candidates went to bed on Election Day night, it looked like Democrat Samuel Tilden had an easy win over Republican Rutheford B. Hayes. The campaign was nasty, with Hayes being accused of shooting his mother and stealing the pay of dead soldiers under his command in the Civil War. But there was plenty of corruption going on in the matter of certifying the votes…. Three southern states submitted two sets of results, one favoring Tilden, and one favoring Hayes. A special commission had to be appointed to resolve the dispute, and even that was subject to shenanigans. The public took sides, and riots were threatened. When the smoke cleared, all the contested votes went to Hayes. In what became known as the Compromise of 1877, in exchange for his “appointment” to the presidency, Hayes would officially end Reconstruction.

1856: James Buchanan suffered from a congenital condition that made his head lean a little to the side. Opponents stated that it was the result of a failed suicide attempt. There were also suggestions that Buchanan, a lifelong bachelor, was a homosexual. Andrew Jackson called him “Aunt Nancy”, and Henry Clay mocked him by talking to him with a lisp.

1828: Challenger Andrew Jackson and incumbent John Quincy Adams had faced each other four years before; now it was time for a rematch. The biggest slam on Jackson was that he was an adulterer. There was some question about whether his wife Rachel’s divorce from her first husband had been officially completed when they married. There was also the matter of Jackson’s notorious temper. As a military commander, he had ordered the execution of six soldiers for desertion. That incident was the lead in what became known as the “Coffin Handbill”, which gave all the gory details about how Jackson was a cold-blooded murderer. Yes, he did have a violent temper and was involved in several duels, but he was never accused of murder. On Jackson’s side, his supporters accused Adams of being a “procurer” for the Czar of Russia during his time as an ambassador there. Jackson himself wrote letters to newspapers suggesting ways they could attack Adams.

1800: Surely our Founding Fathers were above all this, right? At least Jefferson and Adams were content to let others sling the mud for them. One newspaper said that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.”. Adams, meanwhile, was a “repulsive pedant” and “gross hypocrite” who “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.”

Whether or not the current campaign gets any lower than it has remains to be seen. But I wouldn’t be surprised….

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