How weird it is to hear people claim that the 2012 presidential race is the meanest nastiest ugliest scummiest tawdriest in American history. Apparently this is the new conventional wisdom, promoted by those who don’t have a clue about American history.
Today, I used my newspaper column to disabuse the ahistorical of their delusions. Call it a public service. We might just feel a little better about our current campaign if we put it in perspective and acknowledge that rhetorical brawling has been our apple pie since the dawn of the republic.
I’m referring, of course, to the election season of 1800, when two guys who are now seen as secular saints, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, smeared each other in ways that have yet to surpassed. They didn’t do the deeds themselves – in those days, candidates relied on surrogates to do their dirty bidding – but they were only too happy to reap the potential electoral benefits
Suffice it to say that until Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is accused of having the sex organs of both genders (Adams was attacked for being “hermaphroditical”), or until one of the ’12 candidates is accused of being a half breed who wants to shut down the churches, destroy the Constitution, introduce the guillotine, promote rape and incest, and generally soak the nation in blood (as Jefferson was accused) – until that happens, nothing in 2012 can begin to compare with 1800.
Granted, in those days, vicious charges were circulated on paper at only horseback speed. But people didn’t need smart phones or Twitter to know what was going on. Edward Larson, an historian who has closely studied the 1800 campaign, has written: “Without mass communication, people relied on private letters and local newspapers for word on political developments. They pumped out-of-state visitors for news, and endlessly rehashed available information….Despite the lack of mass media and national party organizations, virtually the same partisan messages reached citizens everywhere.”
True that. Jefferson’s hired hatchetmen functioned like super PACs. The pro-Adams newspaper Gazette of the United States was basically the Fox News of the Federalist party, parsing Jefferson’s writings on religion and concluding that the author of the Declaration of Independence was not a real Christian. (Martha Washington, the former First Lady, also disliked Jefferson. In the midst of that campaign she called him “one of the most destable of mankind, and a threat to our way of life.” Try your darndest to imagine Laura Bush assailing Obama like that.)
Anyway, it’s like Larson says: The Founders “could write like angels and scheme like demons.” Dirty politicking is in our DNA. We survived that vicious race (Jefferson, the victor, never did close those churches; the loser wound up with an HBO miniseries) – and we’ll survive the current one. Indeed, the best way to process all the convention rhetoric, over the next two weeks, and to keep one’s sanity, is to remember that we’ve heard it all before. And way worse.
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