The Politics of Personal Destruction

Commentators in recent presidential contests have tried to make the case that American politics is getting nastier. Maybe. Maybe not. Our forebears slung some serious mud! And, at least one expert has given the #1 Dirtiest Presidential Campaign Award Ever to Democrat Lyndon Johnson for his 1964 campaign … nearly half a century ago.

Historian Joseph Cummins (author of Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises) said that, in general, “incumbent parties tend to play the most dirty tricks, perhaps because they have the ways and means to do so.”

Based on this and the kind of people Obama has on his side (e.g., Chicago thug Axelrod), I’m guessing the Obama campaign of 2012 will meet or surpass the Johnson campaign of 1964. But let’s keep in mind that Johnson (who won by a record landslide) was not running for his second term at that time. He had become president upon the assassination of the popular Kennedy, which put the Republicans in a very awkward position of having to campaign against the policies of a martyred national icon.

Far more congenial to this observer is the 1968 campaign, for which Johnson was declared eligible to run for a “second” term. During that election season, just four years after he had won the White House with 61.1% of the vote, Lyndon Johnson was actually forced out of the race by his own party! And Republican Richard Nixon won.

Below is a quick peek into our nation’s political history. It’s not comprehensive or authoritative, more just what piqued my interest when I was researching “Is American politics getting nastier?” (My sources are at the bottom.)

1800: Thomas Jefferson vs. John Adams

Jefferson’s hired gun wrote that Adams was a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Ouch.

Adams’ people carried things even further, asking voters, “Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames… female chastity violated… children writhing on the pike? GREAT GOD OF COMPASSION AND JUSTICE, SHIELD MY COUNTRY FROM DESTRUCTION.” Kinda reminds me of Biden’s claim that rape will increase if we don’t pass whatever it was Obama was pimping at the time.

Party history: Adams belonged to the Federalist Party, which existed from the early 1790s to 1816 or so. Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican Party with James Madison in the early 1790s.  The Federalists kind of faded out, leaving the Democratic-Republicans as the dominant and more-or-less only party between 1816 and 1824.

1828: Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams

Andrew Jackson is typically considered the first Democratic President of the United States. His people said that Adams had sold his wife’s maid as a concubine to the czar of Russia.

Meanwhile, Adam’s people were saying Jackson had the personality of a dictator and was too uneducated to be president. They claimed he spelled Europe ‘Urope’. (Potatoes, anyone?)

They also attacked Jackson’s wife, who had been in an abusive marriage with a man who finally divorced her. Despite the circumstances, they used the stigma of divorce and called her a “dirty black wench”, a “convicted adulteress” and said she was prone to “open and notorious lewdness.”

Party history: The dominant Democratic-Republican Party split in 1824, with the faction supporting Andrew Jackson calling itself the Democratic Party. The other main faction, led by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, formed a new party. Briefly known as the National Republicans, it quickly adopted the name Whig Party, under which name it existed for about 25 years.

In 1852, the Whig party split so badly over the slavery issue that it couldn’t even agree to renominate its own incumbent, President Fillmore, for president. Anti-slavery Whigs and anti-slavery Democrats left their parties and formed the new anti-slavery Republican Party which persisted until today. The Democratic Party continued its strong support of slavery while the remnants of the old Whig Party faded away.

The Republican’s first presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, was defeated by Democrat James Buchanan, who said of the growing slavery schism in the country: “The object of my administration will be to destroy sectional party, North or South, and to restore harmony to the Union.” Sound familiar?

Chrissy’s Site Bites:

Democratic President Buchanan called the legalization of slavery in the territories to be “happily, a matter of but little practical importance” since the Supreme Court was about to settle it “speedily and finally,” and proclaimed that when the decision came he would “cheerfully submit, whatever this may be.” It seems likely he knew what that “cheerful” decision would be, since he was seen in whispered conversation with SCOTUS Chief Justice Taney before making that statement and SCOTUS handed down their pro-slavery Dred Scott Decision just two days later.

(So, Democrats heartily supported both Dred Scott and Roe v. Wade. And they’re PROUD of their legacy? Sheesh.)

1860: Abraham Lincoln vs. 3 candidates

Lincoln’s opponents got very personal, saying he was a “horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman”, “the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs and arms and hatchet face ever strung on a single frame” and, oh my, he had “stinky feet.” Oooh, stinky feet. Yeah, that would really sway my vote. ::snort::

1884: Grover Cleveland vs. James Blaine

New York Governor Grover Cleveland was known as Grover the Good for his personal integrity; it came as a tremendous shock when, on July 21, 1884, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph reported that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock, that the child had gone to an orphanage, and that the mother had been driven into an asylum.

Cleveland’s campaign people admitted that Cleveland had formed an illicit connection with the mother and that a child had been born and given the Cleveland surname. But they said there was no proof that Cleveland was the biological father. Moreover, they said that giving the child a name and finding it a home had simply been his civic duty. And besides, the mother wasn’t in an asylum, she was just missing. Republicans made up the chant – “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?” – and used it to taunt Cleveland, who was still a bachelor.

Chrissy’s Site Bites:

Meanwhile, Democrats made up their own chant “Burn this letter! Burn this letter!” about Republican Blaine, who had pretty much confirmed allegations that he was knowingly involved in Pay for Play dealings when he wrote “Burn this letter!” on an incriminating document.

The Cleveland-Blaine race was close, until an anti-Catholic pronouncement by a Blaine supporter was widely publicized by Cleveland’s people, which energized the Irish and Catholic vote in New York City against Blaine, costing him New York and the election by the narrowest of margins.

1896: William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan

The New York Times, which supported the Republican (!!) McKinley, published a series of articles in which various “experts” 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.”

The primary issue of the 1896 campaign involved this economic question: would America remain on the gold standard, as McKinley and the Republicans wished, or would the nation’s economy switch to the free silver theories? When “Silver Democrat” Bryan was nominated by the party, “Gold Democrats” (who believed in free trade, hard money, and minimalist government) put their own candidate forward.

Bryan argued that by abandoning the gold standard and having paper money backed by silver instead of gold, it would allow more paper currency to enter the national economy (a popular Bryan slogan was “16-to-1”, based on the claim that 16 silver-backed dollars could be printed for every one dollar backed by gold).

Bryan and his supporters argued that this “easy money” would allow impoverished farmers in the South and West to get out of debt and pay their bills, and that having more paper money circulating in the economy would help lift the nation out of the economic depression which had started in 1893.

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? Political scientists widely regard the 1896 election as a realigning election, when the Democratic Party embraced its current financial policies.

1928: Herbert Hoover vs. Al Smith

Al Smith was the first Catholic ever to be nominated for President by a major party.  He lost the 1928 election, giving Herbert Hoover a landslide victory and, while anti-Catholicism wasn’t the sole reason, it contributed immensely. Republicans told everyone that he had a secret tunnel 3,500 miles long, that stretched from the Holland Tunnel to the Vatican in Rome, and that if he were elected, the Pope would have say in all presidential matters. In this cartoon, his putative cabinet is imagined to consist of the Pope and a bunch of priests.

Chrissy’s Site Bites:

Granted, NOT the Republican Party’s finest moment. Still, I’m thinking it’s time the “We’ve always been Democrats” Catholics got a clue that the Republican Party got over the whole anti-Catholic thing a long time ago and now, being Pro-Life, is far more congenial to real Catholic faith than the rabidly Pro-Abortion Democratic Party.

1964: Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater

Ah, now we get to the real stinker! The year that Democrat President Lyndon Johnson orchestrated the dirtiest campaign in U.S. history. Seeking his first elective term after taking over for the assassinated JFK, Johnson set out not just to defeat Goldwater in the election, but to destroy him as a respected public figure.

Johnson put together a group of sixteen dirty tricks operatives who were in close contact with him inside the White House. Their mandate was to trash Goldwater’s reputation in America’s popular culture. They deliberately fed the press misleading information about Goldwater’s campaign, wrote letters to columnist Ann Landers claiming to be ordinary citizens terrified of about the idea of Goldwater as president, and published a Goldwater joke book “You Can Die Laughing” and a children’s coloring book showing Goldwater dressed in KKK robes.

Showing Goldwater dressed in KKK robes is truly odd, given that the Klan was anti-Jewish and another Democrat smear tactic was to claim Goldwater was hiding his Jewishness.  Goldwater’s father was Jewish, but his mother was Episcopalian. Since Jews practice matrilineal descent, Barry was raised Episcopalian. As an adult, he said that he admired his father’s family and honored that part of his heritage, but that he had never personally been a practicing Jew. (I’m hearing another eerie echo.)

One joke told about Goldwater was that he hadn’t been allowed to play golf at a restricted Phoenix country club, because of his father being Jewish. Goldwater reportedly tells the club pro, “It’s okay. I only want to play nine holes.”

Johnson also sent CIA agent E. Howard Hunt undercover into Goldwater campaign headquarters to steal information and feed it to the White House. Every time Goldwater put forth an initiative, the White House immediately trumped it. The net results was that Johnson beat Goldwater by the third highest popular vote margin in history.

What about Watergate?

I don’t see much point in belaboring this and more recent events with which we’re mostly familiar. According to Cummins (who I thought showed a pro-Democrat slant in the interview linked below), Democrat Johnson’s dirty tricks were much worse than what Nixon pulled some years later.

Cummins claimed that Nixon got exposed because the media had wised up. Personally, I’m a tad more inclined to believe the press aided and abetted Johnson because he was a Democrat, but pursued, exposed and ultimately destroyed Nixon because he was a Republican. But hey, I’m biased!



Also, various articles at Wikipedia.

H/t to GA for suggesting this interesting topic.


Filed under Democrats, Elections, Republicans

3 responses to “The Politics of Personal Destruction

  1. Great research and reporting, Chrissy.

    I love the story about Barry Goldwater only wanting to play nine holes at the golf course! It reminded me of the story about Groucho Marx trying to join a club and being told Jews weren’t allowed in the pool, to which Groucho responded, “My daughter’s only half Jewish. Can she go in up to her knees?”


  2. Ting

    When I was 19, I took American History in summer school at the University and had to write a paper on the 1928 Presidential election, focusing on the political cartoons. It was a huge pain, because in those days I had to go downtown to the State Library to view all of the old newspapers on microfilm, just to find the cartoons in the first place. There was no other method but to just read through paper after paper, hoping to land on the editorial page and find the coveted cartoons. It ended up being a very interesting thing, though took up way more time than I had hoped. I seem to remember that there were a lot of cartoons painting Al Smith as some kind of alcoholic, as well as a papist.

    The neat thing that happened, though, is that while scanning all of those newspapers I found the article about my grandparents’ wedding, along with a the bridal photo of my grandmother. She was beautiful (of course!) and the thing I remember most was that her bouquet was nothing but lily of the valley. Just a huge mound of thousands of lily of the valley! Can you imagine what that fragrance must have been like?!


    • chrissythehyphenated

      (Ew, flashing back to dusty hours in dark rooms scrolling through microfilm. Kids today have NO idea how great they have it with the internet!!)

      That is SO COOL about your grandparents! My mom also had lily of the valley for her bouquet, though, if I recall correctly, she said they were out of season (late June) and so very expensive. It was the only flower she wanted, so she went with a small tussy-mussy bouquet.