Politics as Unusual

If you think you’ve never seen a presidential campaign as nasty as this one, you must not be old enough to have voted in the election of 1800.

While today’s republican candidates discuss building border walls, who is the toughest—and the size of their hands, it is not the first time presidential runs have devolved into cage matches. Jumping ugly is as American as America. And that’s been true from the start.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were pals and colleagues. They had worked together in the 2nd Continental Congress. They were among the founding fathers of our country. They both liked teriyaki.

In 1796, Adams was elected president—but under the rules of the time, Jefferson as the runner-up, became vice-president. Things seemed hunky-dory—until the election of 1800 came along. That’s when Jefferson decided he would be a better president than the guy he was serving under.

And that’s when Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, hired another writer to pen the following: “John Adams is a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Top that, Trump.

Jefferson won the election gong away. Once in office, he brought in explorers Meriwether Lewis and James Clark and told them, “I want you two to go west and discover the towns of Lewiston and Clarkston.”

They did as requested—and also discovered that on one side of the Columbia River, it was OK to pump your own gas. But not on the other.

In 1828, Adams son—John Quincy—announced that his rival, Andrew Jackson, was “too uneducated to be president.”(‘Uneducated’ was John Quincy’s way of saying ‘stupid.’)

Then, J.Q. Adams really got into the mud trough. He hurled all kinds of insults at Jackson’s previously married wife, calling her “prone to open and notorious lewdness.”

Jackson shot back that Adams had sold his wife’s maid as a concubine to the czar of Russia. Jackson also said that Adams used public money to bring lots of gambling equipment into the White House. Adams might have shot back: “You want to bet?”

Jackson won the election—and moved his “open and lewd” wife in to the White House with him.

You might think that Abraham Lincoln—of all people—would be above the fray. Wrong.

He made fun of his rival, Stephen Douglas’s 5 foot 4 inch height. “He is 5 foot nothing in height—and about the same in diameter.”
 Douglas meanwhile called Lincoln a “horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly.” He also called Lincoln “hatchet face.” Lincoln must have thought, “I always thought I had more of a pick-axe face. And ‘scoundrelly’ is a word?”

When James Blaine ran against Grover Cleveland in 1884, he made hay with the rumor that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock. Everywhere Cleveland went, there were chants of “Hey, Ma! Where’s my pa?”

Meanwhile, Blaine was dogged with reports that he had some shady dealings with the railroad. Chants of “Hey, Blaine! Where’s my train?” didn’t catch on.

Nonetheless, Blaine was narrowly defeated. Some say he was railroaded.

More recent presidential contests have all had their moments of grisliness. But it should come as no surprise that most all campaigns seem to head for the gutter. After all, the rules of politics are learned early.

In high school, election campaigns can get further down in the dirt than an army of ground hogs. Candidates for student body president are generally wasting their time promising longer recesses and better school lunch food. In my day, it was far more important to get personal—especially about other candidates’ names.

In my grade, Harry Hinds never had a chance. Neither did excellent candidates with the unfortunate last names of Butts, Fink and Stenkamp (Stinky).

I ran briefly for school treasurer, figuring the name Cashman would be a natural vote getter. But then the opposing posters started showing up changing “Pat Cashman” to “Fat Trashcan”—and worse. I was clobbered.

So whatever happens in the ongoing race for U.S. president, it is best to assume that you’ve seen nothing yet. Candidates will continue to make all kinds of unfounded claims—and disparage their opponents whenever possible. After all, it seems to work.

Most of the time.

In my campaign for 8th grade class president, I pointed out that my opponent—Carl McCool—had been caught cheating on his math final. “Is this the kind of person you want leading your class?” I asked.

The results of the election were clear: Yes, they did. McCool was elected in a landslide.

The snitch was turned away.