There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Anything for a Vote on the bus

Finished reading "Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises In U.S. Presidential Campaigns" by Joseph Cummins. Those who read history for its value as trivia for cocktail chatter will find this book priceless.

Cummins explains that the 2004 presidential election postmortems moaning about how sleazy presidential campaigns had become prompted his research. Are presidential campaigns more vicious today?

After a year and a half spent researching and writing "Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises In U.S. Presidential Campaigns," I can happily answer that question with a resounding No. Presidential elections haven't gotten worse -- they're just as dirty now as they've always been.
hearken back to 1800 and the rematch between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Jefferson hired a writer named James Callender to attack President Adams:
Adams, he wrote, was "a repulsive pedant," a "gross hypocrite," and, most interesting, "a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensiblity of a woman."
The book offers an excellent survey of American presidential politics, with just enough historical background to explain the flavor mud being splashed about. I appreciated the new insights into historical figures. For instance:
When one reads about Davy Crockett's career in politics, one gets a very different picture than that of the honorable homespun hero of the 1950s TV coonskin cap fame. Crocket was a Whig attack dog, the Ann Coulter of his time.
I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the 1920 campaign between Warren G. Harding and James Cox. Cummins describes Harding as "the most libidinous candidate to run for president until Bill Clinton."
When Republican operatives decided to nominate the fifty-five-year-old Ohio senator, they asked if he had anything hidden in his personal life that would "disqualify" him from winning the presidency. Harding asked for some time to reflect on the question, and he may have pondered that he chewed tobacco, played poker, loved to drink (Prohibition had just been voted in), and was having affairs with not only the wife of one of his friends but also a young woman thirty years his junior, with whom he had an illegitimate daughter. Then he said, nope, nothing to hide, guys -- it's all good.
The book comes with a handy Sleaze-O-Meter for the worst campaigns. The campaigns rating a 10 on the Sleaze-O-Meter scale of 1 to 10:
  • 1800 Thomas Jefferson vs. John Adams
  • 1876 Rutherford Hayes vs. Samuel Tilden
  • 1928 Herbert Hoover vs. Al Smith
  • 1960 John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon
  • 1964 Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater
  • 1972 Richard Nixon vs. George McGovern
  • 1988 George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis
  • 1992 William Jefferson Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush
  • 2000 George W. Bush vs. Al Gore

Here's the famous "Daisy" ad from Johnson-Goldwater campaign.

There's also a handy appendix with the Top Ten Classic Attacks in Presidential Elections
10. "You're not tough enough!"
9. "You'll drive us into war!"
8. "You're too old!"
7. "You're an egghead!"
6. "You're an idiot!"
5. "You're a slut!"
4. "You're clearly not having sex with anyone!"
3. "You're at least a little bit gay!"
2. "You're drunk all the time!"
1. "You're insane."
In this election year, with the primary season finally under way, there's something comforting in knowing that the mud throwing is just, well, normal, quadrennial fun.

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