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Stuck In the Muck
Mudslinging Isn't New. Here's the Messy Truth.

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.

"If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington," Benjamin Franklin's grandson wrote in 1796.

Or Abe Lincoln. According to an 1864 edition of Harper's Weekly, Lincoln was disparaged as a "Filthy Story-Teller," a "Buffoon," a "Usurper," a "Monster" and a "Land-Pirate," whatever that is. His enemies also described him as "A Long, Lean, Lank, Lantern-Jawed, High Cheeked-Boned Spavined Rail-Splitting Stallion," which actually makes Lincoln sound kind of hot, except for the "spavined" part. (We looked it up. It invokes horses with diseased joints, or more generally, decrepitude and decay.)

As Jamieson notes in another book, "Dirty Politics," long before there was potent television imagery juxtaposing an innocent girl with the threat of nuclear war (LBJ's '64 Daisy ad), or tying a menacing-looking black murderer to a Democratic candidate (the '88 Willie Horton ad), presidential campaigns were thick with oversimplified attacks aiming at the gut, not the intellect.

"Campaigns generally ally the favored candidate with things uncritically accepted, such as flag and freedom," Jamieson writes, "and tie the opponent to such viscerally noxious things as the murder of innocent men, women and children."

In the 1828 election, Jamieson writes, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams got into a tiff we might call the War of the Handbills. Jackson's supporters distributed handbills portraying Adams as a nasty dude who drove away a "crippled old soldier" who asked for charity -- drove him away with a horsewhip, no less. Adams's supporters put out handbills undermining Jackson's reputation as a military hero by painting the general's execution of six deserting soldiers as a bloodthirsty act, invoking the image of gallant young men "welter[ing] in their gore!!" Jackson's supporters replied with handbills parodying their opponents' handbills, suggesting that Jackson had not executed the soldiers but "swallowed them whole, coffins and all, without the slightest attempt at mastication!!!!!!"

They were big on exclamation marks back in the day.

Joseph Cummins, the author of "Anything for a Vote," has compiled a list of top 10 historic smears and rumors, which he delivers Letterman-style over the phone from his home in Maplewood, N.J., counting down to one. Among the classics are "You're not tough enough," "You'll drive us into war," "You're too old" (sound familiar?), "You're an egghead" (sound familiar?) and "You're drunk all the time" -- the last of which, Cummins says, was more popular in the 19th century, for whatever reason. There were also the sexual accusations, like "You're a slut," which is Cummins's playful way of characterizing an enduring smear that has usually amounted to You're an immoral degenerate who has either preyed on a poor maiden or enjoys the company of a lascivious and money-grubbing bimbo, depending on how the love interest is portrayed.

There's also what Cummins calls "You're at least a little bit gay." When he served in the House, James Buchanan, a bachelor, and his housemate, Sen. William King of Alabama, were both the subject of such rumors. According to historian Jean H. Baker, King was known as "Aunt Fancy," while Buchanan was, in the words of Andrew Jackson, "Aunt Nancy."

In 1835, Davy Crockett -- who briefly considered a run for the presidency -- released a ghost-written campaign tract with one of those really long titles they used to use back then: "The life of Martin Van Buren, heir-apparent to the 'government,' and the appointed successor of General Andrew Jackson, Containing every authentic particular by which his extraordinary character has been formed, With a concise history . . . " You get the idea.

Inside, Crockett made note of Van Buren's baldness, described his face as "a good deal shrivelled," compared Van Buren to "dung" and described his personality as "secret, sly, selfish, cold, calculating." Then he got nasty. Van Buren, he wrote, was "a dandy. When he enters the senate chamber in the morning, he struts and swaggers like a crow in the gutter. He is laced up in corsets, such as women in a town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the best of them."

Tough rhetoric, though it's hard to say how many people would have heard it back when it was made. For the bulk of the 19th century, it was considered unseemly for presidential candidates to make speeches on their own behalf. The arguments over whom to vote for were circulated by surrogates and in written documents. As Jamieson points out in an interview, without television and radio and the Internet and with fewer people able to read, it's hard to gauge how many people heard the dirty stuff.

"That was an entirely different world," Jamieson says. "How do you measure the effect of a broadside? We don't know how many people saw it."

But in those instances when the candidates did speak, and an audience did hear them, it appears Americans back then -- just like Americans now -- had a taste for blood.

In 1858, during the first of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, as the Senate candidates argued over issues like the Dred Scott decision and the Missouri Compromise, their remarks about each other were thick with sarcasm. The crowd loved it. Much like the crowds at modern-day rallies, where people are apt to shout things like "Booo!" (about the opponent) and "You're a hottie!" (about Sarah Palin), the audience at the first Lincoln-Douglas debate erupted with cries like "hark" and "humbug" and "hit him again." At one point, as Lincoln prepared to read a document, a heckler cried, "Put on your specs!"

"Yes, sir, I am obliged to do so," Lincoln replied.

Stephen Douglas spoke condescendingly of Lincoln "following the example and lead of all the little abolition orators, who go around and lecture in the basements of schools and churches." He allowed that Lincoln had some good points -- as a young man, Lincoln had been top-notch at "running a foot-race" and "could ruin more liquor than all the boys of the town together." (Here we imagine Douglas doing a hearty 19th-century chortle.)

Lincoln responded by correcting the assertions of "Judge Douglas" on several matters, allowing that he was certain Douglas wasn't intending to lie. At one point, he said, "I know the judge is a great man, while I am only a small man" -- and then proceeded to gut him.

He also compared Douglas to an "obstinate animal" and added, "I mean no disrespect."

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