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Constable's Notebook - September 2008

So you think this year’s presidential campaign is getting nasty? It is, but historians would argue that presidential mudslinging is as old as our country. In fact, the last election where scurrilous charges were not made was in 1792 when George Washington was re-elected without opposition. The first contested presidential election occurred in 1796 when Vice President Thomas Jefferson ran against sitting President John Adams. Jefferson referred to Adams as “a hideous hermaphroditical (bisexual) character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams asked, “Are you prepared (if Jefferson is elected) to see your dwellings in flames…female chastity violated…children writhing on the pike (sharp point or spike)?” Needless to say, a sitting president and vice president from different parties can cause problems so Congress passed the 12th Amendment to prevent opposing presidential candidates from being elected President and Vice President.

Presidential campaign rhetoric quieted down a bit until 1828 when Andrew Jackson challenged John Quincy Adams. Jackson accused Adams of stealing, gambling and pimping his children for the Russian Czar! Adams shot back that Jackson had engaged in murder, gambling, slave trading, treason and premarital relations with his wife. History students may remember reading about the high-minded Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 for an Illinois Senate seat. Two years later when they faced off for president, mud flew in all directions. Douglas referred to Lincoln as a “horrid-looking wretch, scooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman.” Lincoln called Douglas a “little giant” (he was 4’5”).

In 1884 Grover Cleveland was accused of fathering an illegitimate child even though infidelity was not an issue. Cleveland’s opponents chanted “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?” After Cleveland won the election, his supporters chanted back “Gone to the White House Ha! Ha! Ha!” New York Governor Al Smith was the first Catholic nominee of a major political party. His opponents told people that should he be elected, the Pope would have a say in all presidential matters. Catholicism was also an issue in the 1960 election where some John F. Kennedy opponents charged that the Pope would have too much control over a Catholic president.

Clearly nasty presidential campaigns are nothing new to American politics. Scurrilous charges continue to be spread by candidates, their campaigns, independent groups, Internet sites, and e-mails. Since the media often does a poor job of separating fact from fiction, voters can check out the latest claims or allegations at FactCheck.org or www.PolitiFact.com. These websites are sponsored by the non partisan Annenberg Public Policy Center and the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly. They do a great job of putting speeches, advertising, and internet rumors to the truth test.

President Kennedy said “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” No matter how much mud gets flung in this year’s presidential campaign, as American citizens we have a responsibility to follow the presidential campaign and hold the candidates accountable for their actions. See you at the polls.



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