Mudslinging politics don't measure up to history

Published 6:39 pm Tuesday, September 9, 2008

By By Steve Flowers
A good number of you found last week's column, regarding negative ads, compelling. Many of you were surprised at how effective negative ads have been in recent political races. However, the optimum word is recent. In bygone days negative ads and dirty tricks were not as effective. In fact, when I first entered politics you were taught to ignore a dirty attack. The mudslinger would be dismissed as a loser and the reason you were being attacked was because your opponent was desperately behind.
Big Jim Folsom even used an anecdotal story to illustrate this theory. If someone slung mud at Big Jim he would say, as a boy my mama told me that if you're wearing your best white shirt and someone throws mud at you don't try to wipe if off immediately. Just ignore it and let it dry because if you try to wipe if away at first it will just smear and make a mess, but if you let it dry a few days the mud will dry up into a clod and you can just thump it off. The rule of thumb was to take the high road and simply ignore the mud that was slung. Historically, this was the prudent political course.
If you think politics are vicious today you should look at the mudslinging hurled at Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Our third President Thomas Jefferson was the subject of relentless vitriol. In the 1800 election, Jefferson was subjected to a pamphlet that accused him of cheating British creditors, obtaining property by fraud and robbing a widow of 10,000 pounds. The pamphlet further stated that if Jefferson were elected "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced."
Even after these attacks, Jefferson won the election in a landslide garnering 92 percent of the popular vote and all but two states in the Electoral College. He went on to win reelection by a similar landslide in 1804, despite the same vicious attacks leveled against him by the federalists. Obviously negative politics did not work in 1800.
Andrew Jackson's opponents were no more successful at destroying Old Hickory in the 1828 Presidential Race. Negative personal attacks on Jackson were unsuccessful. The 1828 campaign was one of the ugliest in history. Jackson's opponents attacked his wife Rachel, which infuriated Jackson. He married Rachel in 1791 after her first husband abandoned her saying he would get a divorce. Unbeknown to Andrew and Rachel, her estranged husband never followed through on the legalities. However, once the divorce was finalized the Jackson's immediately remarried.
During the 1828 campaign, the anti-Jackson newspapers and pamphlets relentlessly played up the situation stating, "Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest office of this free and Christian land." Jackson tried to shield his beloved Rachel, who was very sick at the time, from these onslaughts. However, Rachel discovered the ridicule she was being subjected to and was mortified. Rachel later passed away in December of 1828, just before Jackson took office as President.
The 1884 Presidential Race became very personal and salacious like in 1800 and 1828. Grover Cleveland's character was at issue. During the campaign Cleveland was accused of fathering an illegitimate child. Although the paternity was in some doubt, Cleveland had supported the boy and his mother for several years. Cleveland pretty much acknowledged that he was the child's father, but fought back with allegations that his opponent, James Blaine, was a corrupt public official who had been a pawn of special interests. Cleveland's public life had been above reproach. Cleveland prevailed over Blaine.
One historic moment in the campaign was at a Cleveland campaign speech when his opponents showed up with children and chanted, "Maw Maw, where's my Paw." His fellow Democrats, knowing Cleveland was going to win, mockingly retorted, "Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha."
These three campaigns were obviously very nasty, but one common theme was that all three men were champions of the common man. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland have all been heralded as some of our greatest presidents.
Although it may appear that we have some dirty and negative politics in our modern day campaigning, it is positively genteel when compared to yesteryear.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama's leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the State Legislature. He may be contacted at

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