Friday, May 06, 2016

Presidential Campaigns--the Bad and the Ugly

My borrowed title statement actually starts with "The Good," but since George Washington's initial presidency, and possibly Dwight Eisenhower's runs for office in the 1950s (it was hard not to "like Ike"), it has been difficult to find a lot of goodness and civility in contests for our chief executive office.

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."


PiedType said...

I'm not particularly concerned about the potential nastiness of the campaign to come. It'a already been stomach-turning and I've accepted that that's probably going to be the norm from now on. "Nice guys finish last" and all that. What bothers me is the obvious nastiness of the man himself -- the narcissism, bullying, insults, innuendo, and outlandish statements with absolutely nothing to back them up. As for the claims that for the general election he will pivot and become more "presidential," I don't think he's capable of doing any such thing. Even if he were, I'm not so dimwitted that I'll forget everything he's said and done to date.

Anonymous said...

If you can stand to read a book where every other word is Republican, may I suggest Kal Rove's "The Triump of William McKinley, Why the Election of 1898 Still Matters." The professor for the class I took on "The Gilded Age" asked, 'Can you name the presidents between Lincoln and Roosevelt." Very few of us could name them, mostly producing a smattering of names among us, though we were graduate history students.

Talk about an undistinguished lot. The were all Republicans in awe of big business but each man had fought for the Union in the Civil War. Where campaigns before Lincoln were rowdy...think of the Jacksonian Era (another class on how crass some members of the public could be before they became Reagan Democrats and Rump supporters), the campaigns after the Civil War until WWI were violent.

What you suggest is so true, every election cycle (except perhaps Ike) has been vicious in some way: the nineteenth century raising the spectacle of Know-Nothings, Nativists, Tammy Hall, Indian massacres; and the Twentieth Century Jim Crow. And can we add the gangs of New York and the Wizard of Oz, a spoof written by a political hack making fun of the politics of 1898.

Can this republic survive? Can people govern themselves?

I blame the media for much of the Rump phenom (not a spelling error). Good serious journalism is almost dead. To sell the news the big media corporations pander to the public which seems only to be able to follow a tweet or 20-second sound bite. At our house, we listen to PBS, which lives in fear of its budget and is not unaffected, but does produce more in-depth news.

I have never been an Obama fan, I didn't like the hubris for a long time, but his brief news conference Friday this week was excellent. He's telling the truth about the office of President. It's not a reality or game show.

Dick Klade said...

Pied: Believe you are correct. Trump may seriously try to change his persona, but his nature probably is much too deeply ingrained for him to succeed in doing that. We can be sure the Clinton campaign will issue constant reminders of exactly what offensive things he has said, making it difficult for him to convince anyone that he suddenly has become a good guy.

Dick Klade said...

Dianne: Thanks; the Rove book sounds interesting. Regarding Trump and the media: I think he has proven to be a master of understanding how media function nowadays, which is a whole new world in news delivery and reception. If our republic is to survive, we somehow need positive evolution in our media to give us a chance to regain at least sincere attempts at objective reporting and analysis. Easy to say, but I have no idea how that sort of media future might look.

joared said...

Delighted to read so many of these stories about our campaigning past Presidents with which I have been previously familiar, but think are generally not known. Certainly we didn't learn any of them when I was in school. While I have little respect for what some will do to get elected or their supporters will do, I'm most disappointed that so many people seem to thrive on that sort of destructive behavior. I get really annoyed when social issues that should not be politicized are made so as a deliberately divisive action.

Dick Klade said...

Joared: I am especially angry about attacks on Planned Parenthood, our favorite charity for many years. Those issues seemed to have been settled years ago, but the right-wing pols continue to stir the pot.

Kay said...

I really hope Clinton will keep her dignity. It might be hard though with Trump constantly attacking below the belt.
I'd really like to know what he's hiding in his tax returns.