top of page

Opinion: The long history of Presidential rudeness

For The Madera Tribune Former U.S. President Grover Cleveland.


It appears that the upcoming presidential campaigning for 2020 is going to get even more uncivil. In the current toxic atmosphere of political discourse, just about anything is fair game. 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. Lincoln’s handlers 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, so the Blaine supporters purchased newspaper ads, which screamed, “Ma, Ma, who’s my Pa?”

Blaine went on to insist 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. His opponent, Debs charged, discussed the issues of the day by “spreading pompous phrases that moved over the landscape in 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 there we have it. 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.

bottom of page