ELECTIONS ARE COMING, AND politicians are doing what they do best: whining about the press. Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-N.Y.) recently complained that the media had unfairly dubbed the Democratic presidential contenders "the seven dwarfs." Earlier, Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) castigated the White House press corps for allegedly trying to "stick it in his" -- Reagan's -- "gazoo."
These guys don't know how good they've got it. If they think the press is nasty today, they should have been around in 1856, when America's bard, Walt Whitman, let loose with some serious candidate-bashing, punctuated by a throaty chorus of gazoo music. When it comes to political vitriol, the "good gray poet" makes Hunter S. Thompson seem like a mere George F. Will.
Franklin Pierce was the man in the White House in those days, which didn't thrill Whitman. "The President eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it and tries to force it on The States," Whitman wrote in a pamphlet titled "The Eighteenth Presidency!" Walt wasn't too excited about Pierce's predecessor, Millard Fillmore, either. Here is his verdict on the two presidents: "Never were publicly displayed more deformed, mediocre, snivelling, unreliable, false-hearted men!"
Pierce wasn't a candidate in 1856, but Fillmore, heading the Whig ticket, faced Democrat James Buchanan and Republican John C. Fremont. A lifelong Democrat, Whitman bolted his party to support Fremont. But "The Eighteenth Presidency!" is no defense of Fremont; it's a vicious attack on Fillmore and Buchanan. "Two galvanized old men . . . two dead corpses . . . two debauched old disunionist politicians," Whitman called them, adding, "their eyes stop at the edges of the tables of committees and cabinets, beholding not the great round world beyond . . ."
But Whitman didn't just go after the candidates. In a style he would no doubt describe as a "barbaric yawp," he catalogued the candidates' supporters: "Office-holders, office-seekers, robbers, pimps, exclusives, malignants, conspirators, murderers . . . body-snatchers, bawlers, bribers, compromisers, runaways, lobbyers, sponges, ruined sports, expelled gamblers, policy backers, monte-dealers, duelists, carriers of concealed weapons, blind men, deaf men, pimpled men, scarred inside with the vile disorder, gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people's money and harlot's money twisted together; crawling serpentine men, the lousy combings and born freedom sellers of the earth."
Whew! No wonder they named a shopping mall, several high schools and a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike after the guy.
In this era of more genteel journalism, a reader of Whitman's pamphlet can't help but wonder: If Walt were alive today, would he describe our contemporary political scene in the same subtle, flowery, sentimental poetics? Or would he take off the kid gloves and really let 'em have it, right in the ol' gazoo?