Debate Club

Campaign 2012 Isn't the Nastiest, Just the Most Covered


Liar. Immoral. Heartless. Weak. Duplicitous. Unfit. Coward. Nuts. Dangerous. Felon. Killer. These epithets are not from the 2012 presidential campaign. They're merely a few of the more ugly insults and slurs that have colored previous presidential elections.

Joseph Cummins sums it up best: "Probably the only clean election in American history was the first one, in 1789, in which George Washington ran unopposed."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

A few of history's lowlights:

  • In 1876, a Democratic whisper campaign suggested that Republican Rutherford B. Hayes had shot and wounded his own mother in a drunken "fit of insanity."
  • In 1884, the Democrats not only skewered the Republican candidate for his corrupt railroad dealings, but they regularly chanted at party rallies and during parades, "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the Continental liar from the state of Maine."
  • Republicans shot back that Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland was a "lecherous beast" and a "moral leper," owing to Cleveland's past of fathering an illegitimate child and then committing the mother (his former mistress) to an insane asylum.
  • In 1896, the New York Times, then a supporter of Republican William McKinley's presidential campaign, published an editorial in late September, which questioned William Jennings Bryan's sanity. They based their hit piece on an unnamed doctor's observational diagnosis the Democratic candidate.
  • In 1920, the New York Times again came to the aid of a Republican presidential candidate. They helped refute a Democratic whisper campaign about Warren Harding that had been started by a racist professor in Ohio, suggesting that Harding's ancestors were black.
  • In 1952, Republicans not only spread rumors that Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson was homosexual, but they also twisted an accidental shooting in 1912 into a campaign piece, alleging that Stevenson had killed a girl "in a jealous rage."
  • In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson created a "dirty tricks" committee and produced a pamphlet, Barry Goldwater: Extremism on the Right, depicting Goldwater as unfit for the presidency and truly dangerous for the country.
  • Goldwater's campaign returned the favor by publishing a book about Johnson's turpitude entitled: A Texan Looks at Lyndon: A Study in Illegitimate Power, which among other things held that Johnson had friends and associates of John F. Kennedy killed.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Past campaigns were not high-minded debates over the issues. Negative attacks and character assassinations have long been part of our history. The only thing different today is that thanks to the nature of the Internet and round-the-clock news every slanderous charge gets amplified and spread around the country at the click of a button. Still, the truth is as President Harry S. Truman observed, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."

Lara Brown

About Lara Brown Author of 'Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants'

2012 presidential election
Romney, Mitt
Obama, Barack

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