For The Madera Tribune
This cartoon ran during the 1884 presidential election, showing that political mudslinging is not a modern phenomenon.
It’s hard not to notice the hostility that is swirling around us these days, especially if one watches television. Some of it actually scares me, like that lady in Congress who wants people to get physical with those on the opposite side of the political fence — or the President when he wants to body slam someone from CNN — or Joe Bieden when he wants to go out behind the barn with him.
And what about right here in the Valley? I am finding out some really interesting stuff. I was amazed to learn that Rob Poythress is crooked — at least that’s what his opponent in the race for the State Senate says. I was also surprised to see that Congressman Jim Costa wears red high heeled shoes — that’s what his opponent charges as she touts his demise as a politician with the phrase, “Costa la vista, baby.”
T.J. Cox, Devin Nunes, no one is immune from the mud being thrown. And if I don’t have a television, and I read The Tribune, I even see that there’s some hostility right here at home. Apparently some people are mad at Mayor Medellin, and it looks like he might be mad right back.
All along the political spectrum, at all levels, it seems a lot of people just don’t like each other. Today’s elections, it seems, cannot be conducted without spasms of vigorous mudslinging. Nearly everybody complains about the negative campaign tactics that always manage to cloud the issues. It’s enough to make the modern voter cast a jaundiced eye toward the system — until one considers the past.
Personal attacks in political campaigns are nothing new. History has recorded some vitriolic exchanges that would make today’s public disparagement’s sound almost genteel. Consider for a moment the campaign of 1860. Four candidates had their hats in the ring: Lincoln, Douglas, John Bell, and John C. Breckinridge. The four men fought like cats and dogs, and the campaign reached its nadir when Lincoln’s opponents began to make fun of his looks. They called him ugly.
Lincoln’s handlers not to be outdone, rejoined by asserting, “We know Old Abe does not look very handsome, but if all the ugly men in the U.S. vote for him, he will surely be elected.”
Then there was the election of 1884. Grover Cleveland was running against James G. Blaine, but he had a problem, and the Blaine people took full advantage of it. Cleveland was the father of a child born out of wedlock. Blaine’s supporters ran around Washington yelling, “Ma, Ma, who’s my Pa.” For his part, Blaine said that he didn’t believe that voters would “knowingly elect to the Presidency a coarse debauchee who would bring his harlots with him to Washington.”
Now if that isn’t enough, let’s go to 1920 when Warren G. Harding was running against James Cox and Eugene Debs. This time it was the Socialist candidate who got off the best zinger of the campaign. Never known for his intellectual depth, Harding was accused by Debs of being plain stupid. The only way his opponent, Debs charged, could discuss the issues was by “spreading pompous phrases that moved over the landscape in desperate search of an idea.”
It was the election of 1936, however, that brought out the worst in the political operatives. Stunned by Franklin Roosevelt’s victory four years earlier, Alf Landon’s campaign manager was quoted as saying that “If the President became convinced on Tuesday that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he needed, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday.
So the next time that civility seems to be slipping away from our political process, it might help to remember that our forefathers weren’t the most magnanimous campaigners that ever hit the trail.