Oscar Wilde they’re not.
Hillary Clinton’s description of Donald Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” Trump’s weakness for dreaming up nicknames for his opponents — “Lying” Ted Cruz, “Little” Marco Rubio, “Crooked” Hillary Clinton. These ham-fisted foibles tend to generate a great groan from the pundits, who lament the decline of civility in American presidential politics. If Hillary and Donald’s speechwriters think these barbs are witty invective, I’ve got news for them: they’re not. And to master the art of taking someone down — usually in a funny way — with a few well-chosen words, I refer them to just about any scene in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Besides, in the past, name-calling in presidential campaigns used to be worse. A lot worse. And you can read about the varying degrees of nastiness during each election cycle in Joseph S. Cummins’ excellent book, Anything for A Vote.
As you’d expect, George Washington’s two campaigns (okay, they weren’t campaigns in our understanding of the word, but that’s a topic for another column) were squeaky clean. True John Adams, Washington’s vice president, grumbled that Washington had won because he was the tallest guy in the room. At 6′ 2″, Washington was a commanding presence, even more so when he stood beside the 5’7″-tall Adams. But give Adams credit for lobbing his snarky remark in private, not from a podium on a flag-draped stage.
By the election of 1796, however, the candidates from the two rival parties, Federalist John Adams and Republican Thomas Jefferson, had figured out that in politics gravitas will only get you so far. A good smear campaign attracts attention, and it is certainly more fun than trying to appear dignified all the time.
For example, newspaper editor and ardent Jefferson supporter Benjamin Franklin Bache (Ben Franklin’s grandson) denounced Adams as a monarchist and mocked his “sesquipedality of belly,” a pot-shot at Adams’ pot belly. Adams’ supporters denounced Jefferson as an atheist whose supporters were “cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin.” Note to the Hillary hack who dreamed up “basket of deplorables” — if you want to savage the rival candidate’s supporters, this is how it’s done.
Since the Adams/Jefferson campaign, it has been open season on contenders for the presidency. Davy Crockett, the Whig Party’s attack dog, declared that Martin Van Buren “is laced up in petticoats!” But the claim that Van Buren was a cross-dressier didn’t stick — Van Buren won the presidency easily.
In 1844, during the James K. Polk vs. Henry Clay race, a pamphlet published by a Polk supporter claimed that Clay “spent his days at the gambling table, and his nights in a brothel.” It is true that Clay loved women and gambling. Clay was such an enthusiastic card player that it has been said he invented poker. He did not invent poker; he was just awfully good at it.
Long before Hillary’s health problems led talking heads to wonder if she was up to the job, John C. Fremont’s supporters spread the rumor that James Buchanan’s slight head-tilt was the result of a botched attempt to hang himself. Palsy was the actual cause of the head-tilt, yet in spite of that, Fremont’s people asked the voters, if a man couldn’t do something so simple as hang himself, how could he tackle the far more complicated task of running the nation?
For the campaign of 1864, the Northern Democrats trotted out George McClellan, the failed ex-commander-in-chief of the Union Army, whom Abraham Lincoln had fired. McClellan’s opponent, Lincoln, was running for re-election, so McClellan got things going by declaring, “The president is nothing more than a well-meaning baboon.”
The Centennial Year, 1876, witnessed the race between the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, and the Democrat, Samuel Tilden. Robert Ingersoll, a writer and ardent champion of Hayes, delivered a speech in which he reminded Northern voters, “Every man that tried to destroy this nation was a Democrat…. The man that assassinated Abraham Lincoln was a Democrat… Soldiers, every scar you have on your heroic bodies was given you by a Democrat.”
The Herbert Hoover vs. Al Smith election of 1928 was unique in American history — for the first time, a major party, in this case the Democrats, nominated a Roman Catholic. Republicans had a field day, not only because Smith was a Catholic, but also because Smith was an opponent of Prohibition. A Lutheran pastor who backed Hoover proclaimed from the pulpit that Smith “hates democracy, public schools, Protestant parsonages, individual rights, and everything that is essential to independence.” A Republican factory worker who was both anti-Smith and pro-Prohibition, composed a ditty that went viral: “A vote for Al is a vote for rum, a vote to empower America’s scum.”
Sneering at a candidate’s religion has a long pedigree in American politics. During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms in office, some Republicans spread the scurrilous rumor that FDR was neither an Episcopalian nor a Roosevelt, but secretly a Jew whose real name was “Rosenfeld.”
Catholicism became an issue again in the 1960 race that pitted a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, against a Quaker, Richard Nixon. Former president Harry S Truman, a Democrat and a Baptist, announced to a crowd in Texas that anyone who voted for Richard Nixon would “go to hell.”
So it appears that, with the exception of George Washington’s two runs for the highest office in the land, smear campaigns have always been with us. Hillary and Donald, then, find themselves part of a long American political tradition. But a review of the historical record reveals what makes the mud Hillary and Donald sling at each other distinctive: our forefathers slung it a whole lot better.