Sunday, August 26, 2012

Dirtiest Campaign Ever? Really?

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Have you ever noticed how, about this time of every election year, the chattering and scribbling classes erupt in a frenzy of clutching their pearls, fanning themselves, and looking for the nearest fainting couch, because "Oh, mah stars, this is the nastiest, most divisive campaign evah!"
It happened in 1988. It happened again in 1992. And in 1996. And 2000, 2004, and 2008. Every single one of those campaigns was decried by pundits and wounded pols crying foul as "the most negative," "most divisive" or "dirtiest" in history.
Poppycock. Poppycock and balderdash. Also, codswallop. As former Obama and Clinton campaign aide Blake Zeff points out in a recent article in the online journal Buzzfeed, "Not only is this not the most negative campaign ever - it's not the most negative campaign of your lifetime, unless you happen to be 3 years old."
Don't believe me? Return with me, friends, in the Wayback Machine to the thrilling days of yesteryear. Specifically, to the year 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams found themselves pitted against one another in a nasty fight for the presidency and, like every election before or since, for the future of the nation.
Jefferson's campaign got the ball rolling, saying Adams had a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."
Adams' men wasted no time in firing back, warning that if Jefferson was elected, "murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest would be openly 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." They also called Jefferson an "atheist, mountebank, trickster, and Francomaniac."
Fast forward to 1872, when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Union, was opposed by New York Congressman and former newspaper editor Horace Greeley. Greeley's supporters called the Grant administration "the crowning point of governmental wickedness."
Grant, however, had the backing of the nation's wealthiest men, and poor Greeley was saddled with a running mate with a drinking problem so bad that at one campaign picnic, he got plastered and tried to butter a watermelon. Say what you like about Joe Biden, he never pulled a gaffe that big. Too bad they didn't have YouTube.
In the 1884 election, supporters of James Blaine accused Grover Cleveland of fathering an illegitimate child with the taunt "Ma! Ma! Where's My Pa?" to which Cleveland supporters shot back, "Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!" Cleveland supporters also had a chant of their own: "Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!"
I'm not sure why they used "continental." "Monumental" would have fit and made more sense. But I'm sure they had their reasons.
The advent of mass media, television in particular, gave negative campaigning a truly visceral wallop. Among the first to gather controversy was Lyndon Johnson's infamous "Daisy" ad, which featured an adorable little girl picking daisies in a field. When she gets to "10," a metallic voice starts a countdown. The girl looks up in puzzlement just as the count reaches zero, at which point we see an image of a mushroom cloud.
The message is clear: If you vote for Goldwater, in the words of Johnson's voiceover, "we must die" in a nuclear war.
Interestingly, the ad, like the infamous "Mitt Romney killed my wife" ad by a pro-Obama Super PAC, only ran once on actual TV, but the controversy swirling around it gave it millions worth of dollars in free air time.
In recent years, we've had ads which implied that Michael Dukakis was responsible for the rape and armed robbery of a Maryland couple (1988). We've had ads accusing a decorated veteran of lying about his war record (2004). We've been told a candidate would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign (2008).
And in every one of those years, someone's claimed that "this is the nastiest campaign ever." Well, I won't believe that until someone pulls a Thomas Jefferson and calls Mitt Romney or Barack Obama a hermaphrodite. Frankly, my biggest problem with modern negative campaigning is that it lacks that kind of style.

3 comments:

David said...

If Blaine was a "continental" liar, what is Romney? Hemispherical? Planetary?

Fran said...

Oh dear gods, Dusty, don't give 'em ideas! Instead of asking to see Obama's birth certificate, what if they ask to see his...no, no, no, no, no! Don't even wanna think of it!

And Mitt's would be even worse!

:-)

eviljwinter said...

Anymore, I just mute the political ads. They make me miss Billy Mays.