Barbara Bush said that it’s “the worst campaign I’ve ever seen in my life.”
In May, Dan Rather called it “by far the worst” of the 11 campaigns he’s covered.
But is it?
I’m not saying it’s been devoid of low points. Joe Biden is roving around telling people that his opponent wants to put them back in chains, an idea that remains unpopular, despite what “Fifty Shades of Grey” would tell you. And Mitt Romney has even weighed in on the subject of negativity, urging President Obama to take his “campaign of division and anger and hate” back to Chicago.
To hear everyone talk about the campaign, you start to get the idea that had you but been born 200 years earlier, everyone would be shaking hands and complimenting one another’s haberdashery (they had lots of haberdashery back then) and engaging in the Serious Mature Policy Debates that prove so elusive. “Ah, Thomas Jefferson,” they would say, smilingly, “I respect you so much. But purchase Louisiana? It seems like a good value, but doesn’t that exceed your executive authority somewhat?”
There have been, in history, eras of Good Feelings. There have been moments when we came together as a nation to disagree over policy, politely, and with the utmost respect for the good intentions of our opponents.
But, well, not really.
Those may, in fact, be the exceptions, not the rules, a few isolated oases of reason in a desert of yelling that resembled the present more than not.
In 1864, Democrats thundered against Abraham Lincoln in Harper’s Weekly: “We are all the cowering, shivering subjects of the bloody Emperor Abraham.”
Then again, this was the 1860s. The nation was at war. To call it an era of bad feelings would be an understatement along the lines of calling Antietam an unpleasant afternoon. Even in peacetime, things were hardly civil. A few years before, a Massachusetts senator had been brutally caned on the floor of Congress. Perhaps this was a blip.
No, the thing to do is to look further back. Say, to 1828. . .
. . . when Andrew Jackson complained about the unprecedented negativity of the campaign, telling a friend: “even Mrs. J. is not spared, and my pious mother, nearly fifty years in the tomb, and who, from her cradle to her death had not a speck upon her character, has been dragged forth. . . and held to public scorn as a prostitute.” They called his wife “a black wench” and said she was a “profligate woman.” He later blamed the negativity for her death.
“The floodgates,” said Jackson adviser William B. Lewis, “of falsehood, slander, and abuse have been hoisted, and the most nauseating filth is poured, in torrents, on the head, of not only Genl. Jackson but all his prominent supporters.”
John Quincy Adams was not immune to attack, either, accused of spending too much money decorating the White House.
Well. Try the 1790s, when George Washington was still in office:
“If ever a nation was debauched by a man,” yelped a correspondent for the newspaper Aurora, “the American nation has been debauched by Washington. If ever a nation was deceived by a man, the American nation has been deceived by Washington.”
Thomas Paine wrote in from France to complain that “elevated to the chair of the presidency, you assumed the merit of everything to yourself, and the natural ingratitude of your constitution began to appear. You commenced your presidential career by encouraging and swallowing the grossest adulation; and you traveled America, from one end to the other, to put yourself in the way of receiving it.”
The more things change — the more — well, nothing changes.
And that was back when you had constructive ways of letting off steam, like challenging someone to a duel, going off on a long surveying trip or dying in childbirth.
“It’s not,” as someone wise once said, “the world that’s got so much worse but the news coverage that’s got so much better.”
At least no one is caning anyone.
But this is always the way. Surely we can’t have always been like this, we tell ourselves.
The spurious notion of a vanished golden age remains popular. People were different then, we tell each other. They wandered around outdoors in clement weather under golden boughs playing the lyre and dispensing justice. I don’t know. Something like that. The oldest civilizations thought the same thing, even though to our minds they are situated squarely in the middle of the Wandering Around With Lyres Dispensing Justice phase of human existence. And you should see what the political Ancient Athenians had to say about each other. Most of it’s not fit for a family newspaper.
The grass was always greener then.
The good news about the past is that few people survive to tell us how it really was. Something terrible always happens to music, they say, right after you turn 30. Political discourse takes a turn for the worse as you age and your hips grow recalcitrant. No doubt the people in the days of Jackson sighed for the comparatively mild insults of the Washington era. “I wish we just accused the president of debauching and deceiving the nation,” they sighed, “instead of all this cannibalism nonsense.”
My point is, this is far from the most negative campaign in history. It’s barely the most negative one in the past 20 years. No one has called anyone a prostitute or cannibal. Dog-eater, maybe. But not cannibal. And Obama-supporting super PACs barely insinuated once that Mitt Romney might have killed just one lady, and then everyone involved with the campaign acted as though they had no idea what anyone was talking about. This is nothing! And even if it gets worse, we can rest assured: it’s in the best American tradition.