This is Supposed to Be a Nasty Campaign Year? Get Real.
It’s only February and already the TV phonies, self-anointed pundits and professional lip-flappers are declaring 2008 the nastiest ever campaign since the last nastiest ever campaign.
The ballot proposition campaigns are sickeningly tame. The Indians who get 17,000 new slot machines from approving Props 94 through 97 rail that it’s the evil horse racing interests and an owner of two Vegas casinos behind the opposition. Well, it is.
Proponents say the money will balance the budget, help kids, help other tribes, cause the sun to rise and bring peace and happiness to all the peoples of the world.
(In a nice taste of irony, the casino-operating tribes backing the propositions label their opponents “big gaming interests.” What would that make the tribes? Gargantuan?)
How far outside the OB marker is the term limits campaign?
A couple of guys in a prison cell criticize the term limits initiative and then – tee-hee – say that if it’s approved they could run for office again. Factually wrong. Very first time for a campaign ad.
Or, on the “yes” side, approving Proposition 93 will “Break the Cycle of Special Interest Money!” because “As Legislators Run from Office to Office, Special Interest Lobbyists Run the Legislature.”
Do they now.
There’s skullduggery in the presidential race. Again, another first. Hey, Mr. Felix, since this is the absolute biggest political prize of all, best leave that stuff inside the bag o’ tricks, old buddy.
Mitt Romney says Hilary Clinton lacks experience. How wicked and mean-spirited. The absolute nadir.
In 2004, President Bush successfully questioned the courage of John Kerry and, in the primary, that of John McCain – men who went into combat rather than slink away from National Guard duty.
Bogus, maybe. Despicable, possibly. But in many political quarters, it wins a big atta-boy for successful campaigning.
Campaign attacks could be a lot worse – and they have been.
Theoretically, the most scurrilous political attacks today are blunted by the fair and objective or, in Fox’s case, fair and balanced, media.
If a candidate tries to get away with murder the press will out them or, worst case, the networks give them their own reality show.
Imagine a political world in which the rival parties own their own media outlets. None of this namby-pamby, Fox-kinda-tilts-to-the-right nonsense.
This would be a no-prisoners world, a world where the vitriol has no limits; a world where the lies would be so grandiose even Goebbels would blush.
Welcome to 1796.
This presidential election – and the subsequent one – makes today’s smear tactics seem like kindergarten finger-painting. A number of writers and historians, including John Ferling and William Safire have catalogued the outrageous attacks mounted in these two campaigns.
Suffice to say: We’re talking calumny-a-go-go.
The 1796 race pitted John Adams, a Federalist, against his former cabinet mate, Thomas Jefferson. Clearly trying to cover all the bases, Jefferson led the Democratic-Republican Party. (As opposed to the Undemocratic Republican Party perhaps.)
Each team had reams of ink-stained wretches on their pad hurling snarling invective.
“His Rotundity,” as the Jeffersonites called the vice-president, wanted to marry off one of his sons to a daughter of King George III to create a new American monarchy.
Even George Washington got winged by the line of fire. The Philadelphia Aurora labeled the Hero of American Revolution, the “source of all the misfortunes of our country.”
In one Federalist rag, the author of the Declaration of Independence was described as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father … raised wholly on hoe-cake made of coarse-ground Southern corn, bacon and hominy – with an occasional change of fricasseed bullfrog.”
Never could trust those damn hoe-cake eaters.
But Johnny pulled the election off. As president, he signs into law this little thing called the Alien and Sedition Act. (He toyed with Patriot Act but that seemed just a little too 1784ish.)
His guy Pinckney starts dropping the ball on wildly seditious publishers who happen to think His Rotundity wouldn’t know a fine piece of brocade if Donovan gave him the shirt off his back.
The Jeffersonites start yammering about the free press being muzzled. And lest it be thought today’s campaigns are tediously long: As soon as Tommy got tubed in 1796 he started running for 1800. Course it took a lot longer to walk a precinct back then.
Comes now the 1800 election. Knives have been sharpened for four long years. The French Revolution is in full bloom. The Jeffersonites dig the Franco freedom thing.
The Federalists loudly proclaim that a Jeffersonite is a synonym for Jacobite — dangerous, godless hooligans with a love of guillotines.
Jefferson is an atheist, a coward who dodged military service in the Revolution, pro-slavery and eager to recklessly entangle America in the shaky fortunes of the new French Republic.
He also sired children with his slave. (Today, Jefferson would get free airtime on talk shows for that– way cheaper than earned media.)
“Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes,” one paper pronounced with great restraint.
Working the godless infidel angle, Jefferson is a man who “writes aghast the truths of God’s words; who makes not even a profession of Christianity; who is without Sabbaths; without the sanctuary, and without so much as a decent external respect for the faith and worship of Christians.”
Nobody’s perfect. Good eye for real estate, though.
Jefferson’s guys threw the same monarchist mud balls at Adams as in ’96. In a nice flourish, they “revealed” that Johnny imported hookers from Britain.
Disgrace unspeakable! Old Rotundity won’t even shack up with a nice homegrown American prostitute, he’s gotta send away for limey tarts. What better proof of monarchist tendencies.
Adams lost — but not by much – partly because he got bogarted by his own party. Fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton decided to hell with the party, I’m taking Adams out.
“If we must have an enemy at the head of government, let it be one whom we can oppose and for whom we are not responsible, who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures,” Hamilton wrote in what can’t be described as a love letter.
Of course Alex got his a few years later when Jefferson’s first vice president, Aaron Burr, shot him dead as a nit.
So as distasteful and disagreeable and disingenuous as modern American politics is, it’s infinitely more staid and proscribed than it was 210 years ago.
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