A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1806
February 29, 2016

YES, THIS IS BAD, BUT IT’S BEEN WORSE

MONTPELIER – A few years ago, engaged in the final throes of an adult spelling bee, I couldn’t help but reflect how like it was to a cavalry charge: With each round, there were fewer left alive, the words grew tougher, and the probability grew apace that the next unfamiliar word would have my name on it. It was exhilarating, but the knowledge that only one of us would reach the enemy’s lines was both daunting and depressing.

Just as in the spelling bee, the fewer left standing, the more directed is the fire, and the greater are the chances of a slip that ends someone’s chances of victory.

That reflection returned this week as I watched the diminishing field of candidates for the Republican nomination for the Presidency. The random attacks, sideswipes, and innuendoes are becoming more personal and specifically targeted. Marco Rubio sniggers about Dorange color, for example, as being the result of spray-tanning, when anyone can see it’s from an onald Trump’s ultraviolet oven: Note the little white circles around his eyes where tiny goggles protect. And Trump is shooting back; he describes Rubio as a boy who’s never accomplished anything, has missed more votes than any other senator, and has funny ears. Even backstage mannerisms have become fodder for the onstage arguments.

Clearly, the candidates are shooting low – at both their opponents and the segment of the public most susceptible to really stupid arguments and promises. It’s school yard stuff. The members of the “establishment” wing of the party, who initially scoffed at the Trump candidacy as a summer shower, have apparently become alarmed that it actually could rain hard, and are scrambling to choose which of the other candidates around whom to coalesce. It may be too late; the base is in full cry. As Shakespeare writes of Julius Caesar’s populist campaign in Rome, “Three or four wenches where I stood cried, ‘Alas, good soul!’ and forgave him with all their hearts. But there’s no heed to be taken of them. If Caesar had stabbed their mothers they would have done no less.” And Caesar, if you recall, won – if only briefly.

Forgive me if the apparent runaway-train nature of the campaign reminds me of another old story. Around 1947 or so, my buddy David Ryan and I, roaming the abandoned farms on the south side of Syracuse, came across an old farm wagon with one of its iron-rimmed wheels hanging loose. It was irresistible. We removed it and began rolling it homeward. It was as tall as we were, and probably weighed over 100 pounds; yet we muscled it uphill and down for well over a mile, till we came at last to the top of a long hill that dropped to a busy street at the bottom and then another block down to my house. The long downhill run was a lot easier than the job had been till then, so we let it roll a bit through our grasp.  Suddenly it took on a life all its own and got away from us. Without going into further detail, I only affirm that we stood aghast as it hurtled toward certain apocalypse, that no one was physically injured, and that we no longer owned that wheel. The lesson has remained with me all my life so far, and I see it playing out in the current nominating campaign.

Many pundits and commentators have lamented what they see as the dawn of a new age of savagery and incivility in Presidential politics; but though it’s true that the tone of this current campaign and that of the last two are far different, a little look back in American political history reveals contests in the past at least as unruly as this one. Two of them, the campaigns of 1824 and 1828, were in many ways eerily like it.

John Quincy Adams, son of President John Adams and Secretary of State for James Monroe, was considered a shoo-in to succeed Monroe. But four other men, each of them, in those days of burgeoning regionalism partly fueled by the growing tensions over slavery, also desired the office. For the first time, the “lower classes” – white men who didn’t own property – could vote, which promised a rough-and-tumble populist campaign. Andrew Jackson, an outsider and revered war hero (which differentiates him from the current outsider) was nominated by his home state, Tennessee, and drew huge crowds to his rallies. He won the popular vote, but lacked the electoral college votes to take office. The House of Representatives, of which Henry Clay was Speaker, chose Adams by a margin of one vote. Adams, of course, appointed Clay Secretary of State. An angry Jackson resigned his Senate seat, vowing revenge as “an outsider to Washington politics.”

The almost mind-numbing length of our current Presidential campaigns has nothing on Jackson’s second; it started just after Adams’ inauguration and went on for the next three years  He built a disciplined organization under the leadership of Senator Martin Van Buren, himself a future president, and traveled the country giving stump speeches in which he portrayed himself as the champion of the common man (following the new extension of suffrage, there were plenty of them around). Adams he tarred as a cold, unfeeling New England aristocrat who harbored a secret agenda to abolish slavery. He railed against the Bank of America, crooked establishment politicians, and the caucus system of choosing candidates.

The mud flew thick and fast: Jackson was dubbed a murderer, duelist, and semi-civilized frontier savage, and his wife a half-breed adulteress; Adams was accused of supplying young girls to Czar Alexander while Minister to Russia in 1810, and using public money to buy “gambling equipment” for the White House – a pool table and a chess set. It got about as silly as today’s taunts about Donald Trump’s “little hands” and Marco Rubio’s ears. And there, I hope, is where the comparison ends. Because Old Hickory, champion of the angry common man, won. 

Photo by Willem lange