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Dirtiest campaign of all time? Not by a long shot

By DOUG THOMPSON - Capitol Hill Blue
August 16, 2012

The duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr: One way to settle political differences

At some point in every Presidential campaign, someone starts wringing their hands and declares the political rhetoric “toxic” and concludes that this is “the dirtiest campaign in history.”

Which, of course, is a crock.  Politics is a dirty business.  It thrives on mud, slander, attacks and innuendo.

But this doesn’t stop the pundits from crying about the heated campaign rhetoric between incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney.

Says Chuck Todd of MSNBC:

You thought last week was bad? Just when you thought last week’s third-grade insults were as low as the campaign could go here, here we go again, the campaign has gotten even uglier, It’s not faux outrage, it’s real outrage. Over the last 24 hours, the attacks from both sides have reached a new level of vitriol.

Really Chuck?  Did you skip history in college?  Here at Capitol Hill Blue we’ve found many campaigns a lot dirtier — and sometimes even fatal.

John Adams running for President against Thomas Jefferson, called his opponent “the father of the mulatto race.”

During another debate, Jefferson brought up questions of Adam’s sexual leanings.

Said Adams:  “That, sir, is a topic that gentlemen do not discuss.”

Replied Jefferson: “Sir, if we had gentlemen in government, we would have no place for politics.”

Mudslinging is not limited to Presidential politics.

In his book, “Mudslingers: The Twenty-Five Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time,” author Kevin Swint retells this legendary campaign where the opponent of Florida Sen. Claude Pepper had this to say:

Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert?  Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, he has a brother who is a known homo sapien, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York.  Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage habitually practiced celibacy.

Pepper lost the election to George Smathers in 1950.  Voters told reporters that they weren’t quiet sure words like “extrovert” and “nepotism” and “thespian” meant but they were sure they were connected to bad, immoral or illegal activities.

Smathers proved you can’t lose an election by underestimating the intelligence of the average American voter — a political truism that controls the campaign system even more today.  The tea party proves that.

America’s political system has its roots in England’s raucous governmental heritage where insults are the order of the day.  Few political rivalries in history matched the acrimony between two members of the British Parliament:  William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.

In one debate, Gladstone told Disraeli: “You, sir, shall die on the gallows or of venereal disease.”

Replied Disraeli: “That, sir, depends on whether I embrace your principles…or your mistress.”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill despised his predecessor Neville Chamberlain.  At a public gathering, a woman told Churchill that she had met both he and Chamberlain and considered Chamberlain a “man of much greater humility.”

“And you should,” Churchill replied.  “He has so much more to be humble about.”

And before anyone claims American politics today is nastier than dares of yore let’s remember that political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr settled their differences in 1804 in a duel in Weekhawken, New Jersey.

Hamilton lost the duel — and his life — even though he fired first. Burr returned fire and his musket ball hit Hamilton in the lower abdomen.  He died the next day.

Burr, charged with murder, fled to South Carolina, but never went to trial on the charges and returned to Washington to finish out his term as Vice President under Jefferson.  He would later be charged with treason for trying to create a new country from the Louisiana Territory but was acquitted and finished out his life in another profession that welcomes scoundrels and crooks. He was a lawyer.

Of course, given the contenders in this year’s Presidential contest, a duel is out of the question.

Odds are, neither one of them can shoot worth a damn.

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2 Responses to Dirtiest campaign of all time? Not by a long shot

  1. Sandy Price

    August 16, 2012 at 8:59 am

    How many elections must we wade through before we can locate a positive campaign where the good things are exposed on our candidates? Neither side has sold me on improvement in America. So we find ourselves searching for the one candidate who has less dirt on their personal or political backgrounds.

    I was personally spoiled by the security of the separation of church and state and now that that is gone, how can I choose which man has a developed character? I cannot accept a religious background as an asset as it is the same old famous green curtain that hides the real person. I can overlook religion but I cannot overlook the lies told by both sides to destroy the other. I want a candidate who I can trust with my nation without the cheap trick of pulling God on the voters.

    I have written in Ron Paul’s name since 1988 because I want my other voter choices to be counted.

  2. Bonnie Taylor-Blake

    August 27, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    “Voters told reporters that they weren’t quiet sure words like ‘extrovert’ and ‘nepotism’ and ‘thespian’ meant but they were sure they were connected to bad, immoral or illegal activities.”

    Actually, I’d be very interested to see where voters of the time told reporters any such thing.

    There’s no evidence that Smathers ever delivered such a speech: no contemporaneous reports in Florida newspapers, no eyewitness accounts of the speech being delivered, no audio recording of such a speech. There is, however, evidence suggesting that “the redneck speech” was a behind-the-scenes joke (intended to remain behind the scenes) crafted by campaign associates and reporters following Smathers and Pepper that early spring.

    Brian Crispell, Smathers’s biographer, has described “the redneck speech” as the most famous thing George Smathers never said.