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The Complete History of Dirty Politics: A Q&A on Anything for a Vote

Today, you’ll recall, is Election Day. Which means that one year from now, we will be electing a new president (as if it really matters). The race is starting to heat up, as candidates shed their friendly veneers and start getting nasty with their rivals. (For what it’s worth, on the Republican side, Ron Paul — whom we’ve discussed before — seems to have pulled ahead of Fred Thompson.)

Historian and author Joseph Cummins is no stranger to the dirty underside of the American democratic process. His latest book, Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises, chronicles the campaign smears, attacks, and misdirections that have typified U.S. elections since George Washington‘s win in 1789. The upshot of Cummins’s book: campaigns are no dirtier now than they were in the past. He agreed to answer our questions about his book.

Q: From your research, have you found any overarching trends among presidential candidates, political parties, and campaigns?

A: Anything for a Vote came about because I was fascinated by commentators in recent presidential contests claiming that American politics is getting nastier and nastier — lots of hand-wringing over whether democracy would survive the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Every election, it seemed, was getting dirtier and dirtier.

But is this really true? After researching every presidential contest from 1789 to 2004, my answer is that elections are not getting dirtier. They’re just as dirty as they have always been. Whether that’s a heartening trend depends on your point of view. I myself am a great fan of the unruly democratic process, which I think will always be unruly.

In terms of trends, a rough rule of thumb is that incumbent parties tend to play the most dirty tricks, perhaps because they have the ways and means to do so. It’s also true that parties with the strongest ideologies — be they Democratic or Republican — fight dirtier, possibly because they are not only pushing a candidate, but an entire way of life.

Both parties at different times in American history have been guilty of mind-boggling attempts to influence elections. In the 1880s, one of the worst decades in terms of dirty tricks, Republicans sent bagmen to Indiana — then a pivotal state — with hundreds of thousands of dollars in two dollar bills (dubbed “Soapy Sams” for their ability to grease palms) in order to purchase votes. The 1960s was the era of Democratic dirty tricks — in 1964, Lyndon Johnson oversaw one of the most corrupt elections ever, against Barry Goldwater.

In 1840, the American Whig politician Thomas Elder had a eureka moment when he wrote to a friend: “Passion and prejudice properly aroused and directed do about as well as principle and reason in any party contest.”

I think this has been the guiding dictum of presidential politics all throughout our history.

Q: You describe the intense mudslinging that went on during the 19th century, with accusations being thrown around of infidelity, substance abuse, cross dressing, and treason, among others. Has campaigning gotten any more civilized over time? How have mudslinging and other forms of negative campaigning evolved throughout U.S. history?

A: I think the mudslinging definitely is still a big part of our election process, but it’s less broad and vulgar. For instance, there is less aimed at other people’s physical attributes. The 19th century was very big on that. In the election of 1800, one of the dirtiest in American history, the venomous hack writer James Callendar (secretly hired by Thomas Jefferson) assailed then-President John Adams as a “repulsive pedant” and “a hideous hermaphroditical character,” whatever that means. Later in the 19th century, Martin Van Buren was accused of wearing women’s corsets (by Davy Crockett, no less) and James Buchanan (who had a congenital condition that caused his head to tilt to the left) was accused of have unsuccessfully tried to hang himself. Oh, and Abraham Lincoln reportedly had stinky feet.

The 20th century began this way; at the 1912 Republican National Convention, Teddy Roosevelt, wearing a sombrero and smoking a cigar, cheerfully referred to William Howard Taft, the sitting President and Roosevelt’s former vice president, as “a rat in a corner.” (The rodent motif is popular — FDR liked to call Alf Landon, his 1936 opponent, “the White Mouse who wants to live in the White House.”) You won’t find this kind of thing out in the open too much today, although you still see it in some of the nastier primary campaigns, such as the hatchet job done on John McCain in 2000 by his fellow Republicans.

Q: What role did the media play in early elections? What was the relationship between journalists and presidential candidates? How did it change over time?

A: The first attack I found against a newspaper came in 1800, when a Federalist poet decided that his party’s defeat at the hands of the Republicans could be blamed entirely on the media. He penned this bit of doggerel.

And lo! In meretricious dress
Forth comes a strumpet called “THE PRESS.”
Whose haggard, unrequested charms
Rush into every blaggard’s arms.

In early American elections, newspapers — then the only form of media around — played a huge role. Papers were unabashed party cheerleaders, rooting openly for their candidates and leading the way in smearing the candidate of the opposing party. Being trashed by a 19th century newspaper was no joke. They really sank their teeth into you. Even no less an authority than the New York Times (sorry) was guilty of this. In the epic William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan contest of 1896, the Times, which supported McKinley, published a series of articles in which prominent alienists discussed quite seriously whether Bryan was crazy. One expert wrote: “I don’t think Bryan is ordinarily crazy … but I should like to examine him as a degenerate.”

By the latter part of the 20th century, this type of blatant electioneering for candidates had pretty much died out, although newspapers obviously still have their preferences. But certain television networks and talk radio shows, on both sides, have taken up the slack with a vengeance, and I think they are just as influential among voters as the old party newspapers were.

Q: What was the ugliest campaign in history?

A: So many dirty elections, so little time… There have been stolen elections (the Rutherford HayesSamuel Tilden contest in 1876 was certainly stolen by Republicans in the South, a foreshadowing of 2000, and the Democrats may have altered the vote enough in Cook County in 1960 to let John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon). But “ugly” has a different connotation. I would have to say that 1964 was the ugliest presidential contest I have researched. President Lyndon Johnson, seeking his first elective term after taking over for the assassinated JFK, set out not just to defeat Goldwater, but to destroy him and create a huge mandate for himself.

Not that destroying Goldwater, who believed that field commanders should be given tactical nuclear weapons, was all that difficult. But Johnson’s dirty tricks were at least as bad as those of Nixon’s Watergate bagmen eight years later. He created a top secret after-hours group known as the “anti-campaign” and “the five o’clock club.” These sixteen political operatives, in close contact with the White House, set out to influence the perception of Goldwater in America’s popular culture. They put out a Goldwater joke book entitled You Can Die Laughing. They even created a children’s coloring book, in which your little one could happily color pictures of Goldwater dressed in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan.

This committee also wrote letters to columnist Ann Landers purporting to be from ordinary citizens terrified of the prospect of a Goldwater presidency. And they sent CIA agent E. Howard Hunt to infiltrate Goldwater campaign headquarters, posing as a volunteer, where he gained access to advance copies of Goldwater speeches and fed them to the White House, causing Goldwater to complain that whenever he put forth an initiative, the White House immediately trumped it.

But perhaps the ugliest thing about the 1964 election was Johnson’s treatment of the press. He remarked to an aide that “reporters are puppets,” and had his people feed them misleading information about the Goldwater campaign. One White House aide wrote a secret memo saying, “It might be healthy to get some respected columnist to give wider circulation to adverse Goldwater impact on the stock market.” A well-known financial columnist was then influenced into writing two columns on that very topic.

This was perhaps the last election in which the media could be so easily manipulated; Nixon’s dirty tricks of the Watergate era were exposed by a press which had been remarkably quiescent in the face of Presidential wrongdoing for many years. Had there been a Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (and the public outrage necessary to support them) in 1964, Johnson could very well have been impeached. As it was, he beat Goldwater by the third highest popular vote margin in history.

Q: How have wars affected presidential campaigns? Has U.S. involvement in a war during an election tended to make campaigning cleaner? Dirtier?

A: Much depends on the war itself. American involvement in World War II, for instance, made things fairly easy for Roosevelt to achieve a fourth term. Generally speaking, wars actually taking place during presidential contests take over the entire dialogue of the campaign; but by the same token, voters will support the incumbent. However, wars often cause administration changes in the following election (take, for example, the Mexican War of 1848, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War) which is what Republicans may be facing in 2008.

In Anything for a Vote, I list my “Ten Classic Campaign Smears” — smears that have held constant throughout the ages. Two of them illustrate the differing effect wars have had on presidential candidates. One of them is “You’re Not Tough Enough.” This perennial attack during times of military conflict — applied to the likes of Franklin Pierce, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton — suggests that the candidate is not strong enough to uphold our honor in the world. Its flip side, “You’ll Drive Us Into War,” suggests that the likes of Andrew Jackson, Goldwater and George W. Bush are loose cannons who will drag us into bloody foreign wars.

I think we’ll see these charges leveled at candidates of both political parties in 2008.

Q: How did presidential campaigning change, if at all, after the 19th Amendment passed? Did the presence of female voters change candidates’ strategies, tactics, or messages?

A: Well, since politicians will be politicians, there was an immediate attempt to pander to women voters in 1920, the first year that women began casting their votes for president in large numbers. One of the reasons Warren G. Harding was chosen as the Republican nominee that year was because he was considered handsome enough to appeal to women, who may or may not have known about his numerous infidelities. (Harding was the most libidinous President to come along until JFK, 40 years later.)

Politicians, both male and female, have continued to shape messages aimed straight at women, depending on the era. In 1952, Clare Boothe Luce went around the country extolling Dwight Eisenhower as “what the fair sex looks for in a man — a combination of husband, father and son.” These days, “family values” appeals are aimed straight at women by conservative elements in presidential parties. Interestingly enough, the one woman candidate running for president, Hillary Clinton, has made a point of not identifying herself simply as a “woman candidate,” and this appears to be working, particularly with young, single women.

Q: Have television and the Internet had as fundamental an impact on presidential campaigns as many people think?

A: I think television has been huge. The first election really influenced by TV was the Stevenson–Eisenhower contest in 1952. Adlai Stevenson — eloquent and intellectual — made the mistake of buying thirty minute segments of prime time, in which he addressed his audience as if they were in a lecture hall with him. But thirty minutes, as we have discovered, is an awfully long time to listen to one talking head. (Stevenson also could never stay within the alloted time limit, and audiences got used to seeing the networks cut him off in mid-sentence to return to regular broadcasting.) Eisenhower, on the other hand, concentrated on a series of man-on-the-street, twenty second spots, and won the election.

However, I think the medium creates a distancing effect — most people never get a chance to see a candidate up close and personal, which may be one reason why average turnout for a presidential election these days is perhaps 49 percent to 55 percent of eligible voters, as compared to the high 70th percentile that lasted throughout the 19th century. There is more immediacy on the Internet — and certainly a substrata of dirty tricks (i.e., the doctored John Kerry/Jane Fonda photo going around in 2000, and this year’s short-lived and spurious anti-Fred Thompson Web site) but it remains to be seen whether it will be a major force in years to come.

Q: What’s your take on the 2008 race thus far? How, beyond the presence of an African American and a female candidate, does it compare to past elections? Who’s your pick to win?

A: Thus far we’ve seen a lot of fighting among candidates of each party as they jockey for position coming into what may be an incredibly short primary season. I think, all in all, that the debate has been remarkably civil with an African American candidate and a woman, with a few glitches; perhaps it has shocked people into a strange and unaccustomed civility, or perhaps we as a country are finally ready for it. I don’t know. I frankly don’t expect it to last. If Clinton gets the nomination, as I expect her to, I think we’ll see the attacks mounting on her because she is a woman — although her opponents will probably come at it from a different angle, as some already have by claiming that she forms a cabal with her husband Bill. Alone, in other words, she could never make it.

As to the 2008 winner, I’m not sure I can predict at this point. Ask me in June. I will predict, however, that 2008 will bump one election off my Top Ten list of America’s dirtiest presidential contests of all time.