The year was 1884, election day was at hand, and the Republican candidate for president listened without protest as a speaker denounced Democrats as a party founded on "rum, Romanism and rebellion."
The word sped to Democratic headquarters, where the chairman of the party's national executive committee instantly saw the almost certain offense the word "Romanism" would give Irish Roman Catholic voters.
"This sentence must be in every daily newspaper in the country tomorrow, no matter how, no matter what it costs," he ordered. "And it must be kept alive for the rest of the campaign."
Not for the first or last time in American political history, the decision had been made to go negative.
This year, as Republicans stage a state-by-state dogfight over their party's nomination, negative television ads have run by the hundreds.
Patrick J. Buchanan portrayed Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) as addicted to raising taxes, deriding him as "Beltway Bob," the "bellhop of the Business Round Table." Dole called Buchanan "too extreme." Steve Forbes raised the tax issue against Dole and accused him of trying to "scare the elderly." Dole accused Forbes of "taking liberties with the truth." "Untested. Not Truthful," a Dole ad said of the multimillionaire publisher.
But many of the gibes seem mild compared to the mudslinging of the political past.
Paul F. Boller Jr., emeritus professor of history at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, believes that all in all, "presidential campaigns are a lot nicer today than they used to be."
Boller, who spells out the depth of negative politics over two centuries in his book, "Presidential Campaigns," asks what modern candidate would call an opponent for the presidency "a carbuncle-faced old drunkard? Or a howling atheist? Or a pickpocket, thief, traitor, lecher, syphilitic, gorilla, crook, anarchist, murderer?"
Such accusations were once rampant in American politics.
The campaign of 1884, for one, was defined by a fury of scandalmongering mudslinging.
James G. Blaine, the Republican, was hit early with accusations of corruption, of profiting from his association with railroad interests while in Congress, then lying about it. The Democratic war cry: "Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! Continental Liar from the State of Maine!"
The Democratic candidate, former New York Gov. Grover Cleveland, was deemed unassailable on his conduct in public office. So his personal life became the target.
Newspaper accounts suddenly appeared stating that as a young bachelor, Cleveland had romanced a 36-year-old Buffalo widow, had a son with her, and had supported the two of them ever since without the benefit of marriage.
The story produced a flood of abuse. Cleveland was called a "rake," "libertine," a "moral leper," a "man stained with disgusting infamy."
Republicans marched through the streets chanting: "Ma! Ma! Where's my pa?"
Although by campaign's end, the Democrats were able to reply, "Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!" the road was clearly to be steep and muddy.
The rocks and stones flew in the earliest days of politics in the United States.
Republican Thomas Jefferson, who had served as ambassador to France during the overthrow of the French monarchy and who loved most things French, was savaged by the opposition Federalists as a godless, religion-hating "friend of the French Revolution."
As related in Boller's book, Jefferson's political enemies also charged that he had cheated his creditors, obtained his Virginia property by fraud, robbed a widow of her estate, proven himself a coward as Virginia's governor, and was "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw. . . . "
The Republicans turned negative in turn, calling Federalist John Adams a fool, hypocrite, criminal and tyrant whose ambition was to marry one of his sons to the daughter of King George III, start an American dynasty and reunite the United States with England.
All of this caused Federalist supporter Fisher Ames to declare that "pigsty" and "politics" were "two scurvy subjects that should be coupled together."
That thought was to be repeated often over the years.
In 1828, opposition politicians discovered that Andrew Jackson and his wife, Rachel, had been married years before finding out that her divorce from another man had not become final.
Although the Jacksons had gone through another marriage ceremony, the charge of alleged immorality was raised throughout the campaign. One anti-Jackson newspaper asked: "Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?"
Jackson dwelt on the attacks on his wife and blamed her attackers when she died just weeks after the election.
Jackson's chosen successor, Martin Van Buren, lost the presidency after one term in a barrage of personal attacks.
His enemies, in effect, performed a character transplant on him.
Rep. Davy Crockett opened the chorus in 1835, saying that although Jackson was a true son of the frontier, Van Buren was "what the English call a dandy."
"When he enters the Senate chamber in the morning, he struts and swaggers like a crow in a gutter," Crockett pronounced. "He is laced up in corsets, such as women in town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the best of them."
When Van Buren ran for reelection in 1840, Rep. Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania walked onto the House floor and finished the job.
Van Buren, he discovered, had furnished the Democratic president's house "in a style of magnificence and regal splendor that might satisfy a monarch."
You can read it still, spread over page after page in the Congressional Record. Over three days in April, Ogle fulminated about a president who he said maintained a "Royal Establishment" at the nation's expense, "as splendid as that of the Caesars. . . ."
By that time, William Henry Harrison had grabbed the mantle of the common people and was known as "the hard-cider" candidate.
A jingle summed up the attack:
Let Van from his coolers of silver drink wine,
And lounge on his cushioned settee;
Our man on his buckeye bench can recline,
Content with hard cider is he.
The Democrats never recovered.
Abraham Lincoln won two elections while dodging attacks on his homely appearance, his alleged lack of intelligence and his supposedly country bumpkin ways.
Behold "the hideous apelike form of Abraham Lincoln," said one Democratic detractor. "The president is nothing more than a well-meaning baboon; he is the original gorilla," said Gen. George C. McClellan, who was to oppose Lincoln in 1864.
If the morning of Oct. 29, 1884, proved a bad one for James G. Blaine, the evening of that day was as bad or worse.
Blaine attended a fund-raising dinner at the invitation of some of New York's wealthiest tycoons and merchant princes.
The next morning, the opposition press greeted him with these headlines: "The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings. . . . Millionaires and Monopolists Seal Their Allegiance."
The New York World said: "From Rum, Romanism and Rebellion, Mr. Blaine proceeded to a merry banquet of the millionaires at Delmonico's, where champagne frothed and brandy sparkled in glasses that glittered like jewels."
On election day, Blaine lost New York by 1,149 votes, and with it the national election.
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From the beginning of the two-party system in America, candidates have been reaching into the tar barrel for ammunition to fling at their opponents. Here are examples from two centuries of American campaigning:
* Thomas Jefferson, 1800: If elected, "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced."--Federalist campaigners
* John Adams, 1800: "Fool, hypocrite, criminal, tyrant."--Republican campaigners
* James Madison, 1808: The accusation: He would import the bloody French Revolution to American shores because he had been made a citizen of France. The reply: Madison had been made an honorary French citizen only, and so had George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.
* James Monroe, 1816: "He is one of the most incompetent and improper that could be selected. Naturally dull and stupid. . . . Indecisive to a degree that would be incredible to one who did not know him."--Aaron Burr, 1815
* John Quincy Adams, 1828: Accused of striking a "corrupt bargain" with Henry Clay four years earlier to keep Andrew Jackson from the presidency. Jackson was accused of "adultery" for having lived with his wife before her divorce from another man was final.
* Martin Van Buren, 1840: Accused of wallowing in luxury in the White House.
* Henry Clay, 1844: Democrats published a list of 21 reasons Clay should not be elected. Reason 2: "Clay spends his days at the gambling table and his nights in a brothel."
* Franklin Pierce, 1852: "Hero of many a well-fought bottle."--Whig campaign attack
* James Buchanan, 1856: "There is no such person running as James Buchanan. He is dead of lockjaw."--Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-Pa.)
* Abraham Lincoln, 1860. "He . . . is not known save as a slang-whanging stump speaker of which all parties are ashamed."--Atlas and Argus, Albany New York. "Unmitigated trash, interlarded with course and filthy jokes."--New York Herald. "He has most unwarrantably abused the privilege, which all politicians have, of being ugly."--Houston Telegraph.
* Ulysses S. Grant, 1868: "Grant the Drunkard."--Democratic accusation.
* Samuel J. Tilden, Democratic candidate, 1876: "Soldiers, every scar you have on your heroic bodies was given to you by a Democrat."--Republican slogan
* William Jennings Bryan, 1896: Republicans called him "socialist, anarchist, communist, revolutionary, lunatic, madman, rabble-rouser, thief, traitor, murderer." The Democratic platform, said a Chicago clergyman, was "made in hell." Some bankers told farmers their mortgages would be foreclosed if they voted Democratic. Some employers told workers, "If Bryan is elected, do not come back to work. The plant will be closed."
* Al Smith, 1928: Opponents said that if Smith, a Catholic, was elected, the pope would move to Washington, Protestant marriages would be annulled. Campaign slogan: "A vote for Al Smith is a vote for the pope."
* Franklin Roosevelt, 1932: President Herbert Hoover warned that if FDR were elected and his tariff proposals enacted, "grass will grow in the streets of a hundred cities, a thousand towns; the weeds will overrun the fields of a million farms." Hoover also tried to link Roosevelt's New Deal with the policies of Communist Russia: "The same philosophy of government that has poisoned all Europe."
Source: Associated Press