The Wussification of Presidential Politics - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Wussification of Presidential Politics

Muriel Humphrey was furious. As Robert F. Kennedy, the campaign manager for his brother Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, leaned in to kiss her on the cheek her eyes flashed. She was cold as ice to Bobby.

It was the spring of 1960, in Charleston, West Virginia. Muriel’s husband, Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, had just lost his second — and last — primary to JFK. Hubert Humphrey wasn’t a happy man either. Humphrey hadn’t just lost to the Kennedys, they had flattened him. How?

In Wisconsin Robert Kennedy had spread the word that his famous nemesis Jimmy Hoffa, the notoriously corrupt head of the Teamsters, had flooded Wisconsin with $1.2 million in cash — for Humphrey. Then there were the calls from the Kennedy campaign into the Polish sections of Milwaukee telling voters that a Humphrey win would mean the introduction of public housing — meaning African-Americans — into their neighborhoods. Humphrey lost to Kennedy, and the campaign moved on to West Virginia — where the namesake son of the Democratic icon Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared at Kennedy’s side and, when on his own, with papers provided by Bobby Kennedy, said “I don’t know where he [Humphrey] was in World War II.” The papers? They charged that Humphrey had been a draft dodger — a sharp contrast with JFK’s PT-109 heroism. Then there was religion. Humphrey had never raised JFK’s Catholicism as an issue — but Kennedy was quick to shame West Virginians, essentially saying “If you don’t vote for me, you’re a bigot.” Flyers mysteriously appeared pretending to a virulent anti-Catholicism — sourced, Humphrey believed, to a clever Kennedy campaign.

Suffice to say, by the time a victorious Robert Kennedy entered Humphrey headquarters to extend a hand to the defeated rival, Mrs. Hubert Humphrey was in no mood to be nice. “I can’t,” she said to a friend. “I can’t, I can’t.”

And the 1960 Kennedy-Humphrey primary showdowns were not alone in their blunt brutality among Democrats. Before JFK finally got the nomination he faced Lyndon Johnson at the Democratic Convention. Johnson crowed — in reference to Ambassador Joseph Kennedy’s widely alleged leaning towards Hitler as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain in the late 1930s and Britain’s appeasement-minded prime minister — that “I was never any Chamberlain umbrella man.” LBJ’s allies put out the charge that Kennedy secretly suffered from Addison’s Disease and would never survive his term, he was so sickly. 

All of that was before the similarly brutal Goldwater-Rockefeller, Goldwater-Scranton fights in the GOP in 1964. And long after that was the Obama-Hillary showdown in 2008, Bush-McCain in South Carolina in 2000, Bush Sr. and Bob Dole in 1988 (where Dole snarled “stop lying about my record!”), and the Reagan-Bush and Reagan-Ford battles of 1980 and 1976.

The story from 1960 — now 55 years distant in the history of presidential primaries — not to mention all the others come to mind as the media is aghast — agog! — that Donald Trump is attacking his leading rival, Dr. Ben Carson. You might call this horror an example of the “wussification” of presidential politics.

Dr. Carson is a great guy, a smart guy, and he has lots of fans. But he is running for president of the United States. And the notion that he — or anybody else, Donald Trump included — thinks they could get through the primaries much less a general election if nominated without a seriously brutal fight is a fantasy. As that story from 1960 illustrates, presidential intra-party primaries are not for the faint hearted — nor should they be. Whoever actually wins the job is going to face a plethora of outright American enemies and tough guy adversaries who could care less whether they have wounded a president’s feelings. If they can’t survive this process, they don’t deserve to be in the White House in the first place. From the Iranian mullahs to Vladimir Putin to the latest South American Hugo Chavez wannabe, the world that awaits the winner is not a bed of roses.

Yet in an era when various Americans are giving trophies to children for “participation” instead of winning, when college campuses are so awash in the politically correct that students can be charged with “microaggressions” and competition itself is called into question, there seems to be a horror at seeing Donald Trump and the rest slug it out for the GOP presidential nomination.

Take a look at this 2013 article in Psychology Today that says in part:

Bob* was a college professor who was worried that he was not going to get tenure. Although he was very popular with his students, he knew that he hadn’t published enough. His department head had encouraged him to spend some time writing and submitting articles and had offered to help him; but Bob was blocked — simply unable to do what he needed to do. His wife pushed him to go talk to someone and got my name from a friend. 

After putting it off for several days, Bob called me and set up an appointment. He spent the first session talking about how he procrastinated. In the second session he talked about how nice his department head was and how much he hated to disappoint the man. And in his third session, he talked about competition.

Living in a world in which competition is highly valued and achievement is directly tied to self-esteem and personal value, both men and women must deal with an often unconscious belief that in every competition there are two possibilities: to win or to lose.

But for some of us, even these two possibilities are not so simple. 

They can hide other dangers. For example, for some people, winning means someone else is going to hate you and losing carries with it the inevitability of hating yourself.

So how do we decide when it’s okay to compete, and when it’s dangerous? When is it healthy, and when is it just not important?…

Books have been written about how to manage sibling rivalry. And none of them seem to say the same thing. In the list at the end of this post are several expert opinions. Alfie Kohn suggests in his book “No Contest,” that parents can – and should – teach children not to be competitive. In “Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too,” authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish say that children will compete, but parents can teach them how to do so with compassion and kindness. David Light Shields and Brenda Light Bredemeier write in “True Competition: Guide to Pursuing Excellence in Sport & Society” that we need to show our children how to make competition work for them. And John Tauer and Matt Richtell both suggest a more balanced approach.

Is it any wonder with this train of thought out there in American life there is a reflexive gasp from some when a Trump unleashes with one of his famous counterpunches?

The views outlined above are decidedly not shared by Pittsburgh Steeler’s linebacker James Harrison, who was appalled to find his sons had received participation awards from their school athletic programs. Harrison took to Instagram, posted a photo of the awards, and wrote:

I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best… cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better… not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.

Harrison is right. In essence, what he confronted was the “wussification” of his son’s school athletic program. And Dad the NFL linebacker, who doubtless knows personally all-too-well that life doesn’t work that way, would have none of it.

America — and its presidential candidates — would do well to take their cue from Mr. Harrison. They are running for president of the United States. Only one of them will win. None of the rest will get participation trophies. Now — as was true in all those earlier primaries in both parties — is exactly the time to get the doubts, the objections, the punches and counterpunches out there.

And in the end? America — like James Harrison’s kids — will be better off for the competition.

Slug it out.

Jeffrey Lord
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Jeffrey Lord, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is a former aide to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. An author and former CNN commentator, he writes from Pennsylvania at His new book, Swamp Wars: Donald Trump and The New American Populism vs. The Old Order, is now out from Bombardier Books.
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