Many pundits now are saying a Trump-Clinton contest will set a record for nastiness. Possibly, but history gives us any number of unpleasant campaigns for comparison.
As "father of our country" and military hero, Washington was extremely popular. He was swept into office for two terms without serious opposition. He belonged to no political party, and in fact often cautioned Americans about the evils of parties. After Washington declined to run for a third term, parties appeared, and sure enough the mud-slinging began.
In early elections, proxies carried on the nastiness. Candidates did not campaign at all. They quietly let potential supporters know they were available for nomination. Gaining that, they sat back and let rabid supporters define platforms and frequently slander opponents in media and by starting whispering campaigns.
|Jefferson:Some bad with the good?|
Describing the change in "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power," historian Jon Meacham said, "However different in form presidential contests were, one feature has been constant from the beginning: They have been rife with attacks and counterattacks."
The 1800 campaign pitting President John Adams against Vice President Jefferson provides a standard for nastiness that Trump-Clinton may find hard to top. We hear every Fourth of July about the wonderful friendship between the two founding fathers, both of whom died on the same Independence Day after exchanging hundreds of cordial letters throughout the last years of their lives.
We seldom are reminded that the men who sat side-by-side while Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence was being reviewed and adopted, and who worked closely together as diplomats in Europe, were so antagonized by statements during the 1800 presidential campaign that they refused to speak to each other for more than a decade.
In the campaign, Adams' supporters characterized Jefferson as a cowardly weakling. They also branded him an atheist, a very serious charge at the time. The atheist assertion was a complete falsehood. Jefferson's surrogates fired back with charges that Adams was an overbearing monarchist who sought to establish a "King's Army" to keep the American people in line (sound familiar, Mr. Obama?). They criticized Adams' character in detail, and very little of that criticism has survived the scrutiny of historians.
Although Jefferson eventually achieved great popularity as a president who championed individual rights and freedom and engineered the Louisiana Purchase, a huge land acquisition that was key to making America "great," he was not immune from criticism while in office. One critic published a scathing report of Jefferson's sexual relationship with a slave, Sally Hemings. That bit of nastiness, denied for years by Jefferson admirers, now is accepted as fact by most modern historians.
Among thousands of documents preserved by Jefferson was this brief letter from an anonymous writer in 1808: "You are the damdest fool that God put life into."
So it goes in American political life.
Will the Trump-Clinton contest be the nastiest ever? I think it is far too early to reach that conclusion. However, there is absolutely no doubt that Donald Trump is the nastiest individual ever to become the nominee of one of our major parties. He exhibits a whole lot of "bad and ugly" and very little "good."