Stuck In the Muck

Both George Washington, at center here, and John Adams were subject to some harsh language. James Buchanan was referred to as
Both George Washington, at center here, and John Adams were subject to some harsh language. James Buchanan was referred to as "Aunt Nancy." (Upi)
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By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 2008

You want to talk dirty politics? Oh, we'll talk dirty. We'll talk about . . . 1800!

Thomas Jefferson was attacked by ministers who accused him of being an "infidel" and an "unbeliever." A Federalist cartoon depicted him as a drunken anarchist, and the president of Yale warned that if Jefferson came to power, "we may see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution." A Connecticut newspaper warned that his election would mean "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced" -- though the paper, which is now the Hartford Courant, did apologize some years later.

In 1993. "You turned out to be a good influence on America," the editors wrote. Whoops! Never mind.

John Adams, the sitting president, got hit with his share of slung mud that year. James Callender, a journalist who was in league with Jefferson, told the country that Adams was a rageful, lying, warmongering fellow, a "repulsive pedant" and "gross hypocrite" who behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a "hideous hermaphroditical character." There was also a nasty rumor that Adams had sent his veep to Europe to bring back four mistresses, two for each of them.

Today's handwringers, who are disgusted by the tone of modern political campaigns, might be reassured (or slightly depressed) to learn that we've always been this way. Almost from the birth of the nation, presidential campaigns have been filled with vitriol and deception.

"Everybody always assumes there was a golden age of presidential campaigning that occurred 20 years ago," says Gil Troy, an American history scholar at McGill University. "Almost from the start, American politics had its two sides -- it had its Sunday morning high church sermon side, and it had its Saturday night rough-and-tumble ugly side."

Things have gotten negative in this year's presidential race lately, and there's been much discussion of when negative becomes dirty, and who's being dirty, and who's willing to get even dirtier. Reporters have been counting the negative ads, which are numerous on each side, and John McCain's wife has accused Barack Obama of conducting "the dirtiest campaign in American history," while Obama aide Robert Gibbs has said, "If people want to get down in the mud, we're prepared to get dirty."

Will anybody achieve the great lows of the 19th century, though?

The years "1800 and 1828 and the one against Lincoln, I think -- those were worse than anything we've had," says historian Paul F. Boller, who has written about the history of dirty politics and who, at 91, takes the long view of things.

Back in the day, political rhetoric was, as David Mark puts it in "Dirty Politics," "shriller, hyperbolic, and downright mean." It was racist -- more than one candidate was rumored as being half-this or part-that -- as well as hostile to certain religions and deeply personal. It was also occasionally bizarre. Historians differ on whether Jefferson was ridiculed for being raised on a diet of "hoe-cake" and "fricasseed bullfrog." During Martin Van Buren's presidency, a Pennsylvania congressman accused him of being so decadent that he landscaped the White House grounds into hills resembling "an Amazon's bosom."

Oh, "John Quincy Adams was accused of pimping for the czar," Troy says. Really. The czar of Russia. The press backing Jackson labeled Adams "The Pimp."

As historian Kathleen Hall Jamieson writes in "Packaging the Presidency," the Founding Fathers intended the nascent nation's elections to be a dignified, deliberative activity, carried out by a small number of wealthy, well-educated men. "The ideal unraveled rapidly." Vitriolic handbills and fiercely partisan newspapers took up one side or another. Laws about who could vote opened up the franchise -- somewhat, at least. Party identification was strong. Political feelings were expressed in the strong language of the time, and even people we think of now as above politics were not spared. To wit: George Washington.

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