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A Yankee Notebook

January 9, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – You have to be a history buff to identify the Presidential election campaign that featured this jingle: “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa? He’s gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” The candidate’s opponents chanted the first half, referring to a rumor that Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child; his supporters, after the votes were counted, chanted the second half. Paternity was never established; but Cleveland accepted the responsibility because, as he said, he was the only bachelor among the possible respondents. He was elected partly because of his forthrightness in the matter. Small wonder H.L. Mencken considered him one of the best men to hold the Presidency, lamenting that people of his character were thereafter in short supply.

In my own lifetime I’ve heard many scurrilous political campaign attacks that make the current “debates” among the Republican nomination candidates seem about as harmful as the caperings of medieval Italian buffones beating each other about the head with inflated pig bladders. Those among us who express the fear that corporate campaign donations and a lower denominator of political rhetoric are ruining democracy may be right; but you can’t prove it by referring to the higher moral tone of past campaigns. Except for a few – Eisenhower vs. Stevenson, though a bit contentious, springs to mind – most have been fairly brutal.

When two-term President John Adams’ Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson, decided to challenge Adams in 1800, the atmosphere in the Cabinet grew a bit chilly. During the campaign, however, the rhetoric heated things up, as Jefferson first hired journalistic hatchetmen, and then, deciding he could do the job better himself, penned a few attacks of his own. Of Adams he wrote, “He is a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force or firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Keep in mind that this is the same writer who had penned another document beginning with, “When in the Course of human events...”

Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans and the American common man, slaveholder, Indian tribe deporter, and serious duelist, ran against the New England patrician John Quincy Adams in 1828. Patrician or not, Adams and his people tarred Jackson as an uneducated bumpkin and poor speller (that would have settled it for me!) married to a woman whose previous union had ended in a somewhat murky divorce. Divorce was still a shameful thing as recently as during my own youth, so I can imagine how shocking it must have been 125 years earlier. Rachel Jackson was publicly reviled as a “convicted adulteress” and “black wench.” The slanderous attacks on both Jackson and his wife were probably the worst in the history of campaigns. When she dropped dead at 61 while shopping for a gown for the Inauguration, Jackson was desolate, and blamed his enemies. The Jackson people’s attacks seem weak by comparison. They claimed that Adams had sold his wife’s maid as a “companion” to the czar of Russia.

Abe Lincoln, President during the most contentious years of the Union, was subject to all the slings and arrows at the command of all his enemies. His greatest attribute as a fighter, however, was that he could take a punch and keep on coming; his early years of backwoods all-in wrestling stood him in good stead. Reviled as “that grinning ape in the White House” and “Jackass-in-Chief,” he struck back with wit: as when he asked the obsessively temporizing General McClellan whether, if McClellan had no immediate use for the Army, he might borrow it for a bit. He campaigned (and lost) in 1858 against Stephen Douglas for a Senate seat from Illinois. Douglas described him as “a horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper, and the nightman [the public employee who emptied privies during the night].”

Lincoln got even when Douglas toured the East Coast making stump speeches (considered in bad taste in those days), and took a month to get from Washington to New York. “Lost Child!” read the handbill the Lincoln people published; “Left Washington, D.C., some time in July, to go home to his mother...who is very anxious about him....Answers to the name ‘Little Giant.’ Talks a great deal, very loud, always about himself.” Oh! that Mitt or Newt had even a touch of that wit!

During the Red Scare that was just coming into flower in 1950, Richard Nixon ran for a California Senate seat against Helen Gahagan Douglas. It was the first of the campaigns in which he resorted to the dirty tricks for which he eventually became notorious. He vowed that since he was running against a woman, there would be no name-calling or smears. Then he quickly broke his promise, feeding Americans’ deep fears about the Red Menace by calling Ms. Douglas “pink down to her underwear.” He got away with it – if you’ve watched the TV show “Mad Men,” you know why – won the race, and started down a dark road that ended with his disgrace 23 years later.

I often wonder about the current candidates’ feelings. They’re all educated – doctoral degrees, some of them – so how must they feel as they look into those adoring faces at rallies and throw them the rankest rot to chew on. It must bother them at night.

But they’re pikers compared to George Smathers of Florida, who in a 1950 contest against Claude Pepper for the Democratic nomination for the Senate, accused Pepper (the report may be apocryphal, but some still swear they heard the speech) of being a “known extrovert” whose sister was “a thespian who sometimes performed her act in public.” He’d practiced “nepotism” with his sister-in-law, had once “matriculated with young women in college,” and before his marriage was a “practicing celibate.” Sometimes – not often, but sometimes – I do miss the good old days!

Photo by Willem lange