As we approach the finish line of the 2008 presidential election, Joseph Cummins is here to share some of the underappreciated moments, dirty tricks and cheap shots that marked past campaigns. Mr. Cummins is the author of Anything for a Vote, available at Amazon.
Election of 1828: Andrew Jackson defeats John Quincy Adams
When people really want to get dirty, they hit below the belt. During the 1828 campaign, Andrew Jackson supporters claimed with utter seriousness that the prudish Adams, when serving as minister to the Russian court of Czar Alexander I, had offered his wife’s maid to the czar as a concubine. That there was a kernel of innocent truth here—Adams had introduced the young woman to the czar—made the lie easier to swallow.
Election of 1920: Warren Harding defeats James Cox
When Albert Lasker signed on as a Harding campaign consultant, the playbook for presidential elections was rewritted forever. Lasker was the head of a Chicago advertising and public relations firm and a true innovator; he coordinated a PR blitz for Harding that included movies, radio, photography, newspapers, and magazines. Some sample Lasker ad headlines:
“Independence means Independence, now as in 1776.”
“Let’s be done with wiggle and wobble!”
“This country will remain American. Its next President will remain in our own country.”
These utterances may strike us as inane, but in 1920 they spoke to an American public that was becoming more insular in an uncertain world.
Then, as now, people liked their movie stars, and Lasker helped Harding populate his front porch in Marion with Hollywood names. Long before Al Gore got chummy with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, newsreel cameras captured Harding at home, hamming it up with the likes of Al Jolson, Lillian Russell, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The same cameras caught James Cox doggedly, grimly stumping away. People had no trouble deciding which candidate was more fun.
Election of 1856: James Buchanan defeats John C. Fremont
James Buchanan suffered from congenital palsy that caused his head to tilt slightly to the left. John C. Fremont’s supporters claimed the tilt was really the result of Buchanan’s bungled attempt to hang himself—and a man who couldn’t even do away with himself could not be president, could he?
Election of 1964: Lyndon Johnson defeats Barry Goldwater
It is amazing that Lyndon Johnson wasn’t impeached for some of the dirty tricks he pulled on Barry Goldwater—they were as bad as the unethical tactics that got Richard Nixon thrown out of office ten years later.
In order to smear his opponent Johnson set up a top-secret sixteen-man committee, which was dubbed the “anti-campaign” or the “five o’clock club” because of its after-business-hours nature. Johnson directly controlled this committee through two of his aides, who chaired each meeting. Among their activities were:
• Developing books to smear Goldwater, with such titles as: Barry Goldwater: Extremist of the Right; The Case Against Barry Goldwater; a Goldwater joke book entitled You Can Die Laughing; and even a children’s coloring book, in which the wee ones could color pictures of Goldwater dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes.
• Writing letters to columnist Ann Landers under the guise of ordinary people who were terrified of Goldwater becoming president.
• Sending CIA agent E. Howard Hunt (later infamous for his role in the Watergate break-in) to infiltrate Goldwater campaign headquarters. Hunt got access to advance texts of Goldwater speeches and fed the information to the White House staff, who undercut Goldwater initiatives on a number of occasions.
Election of 1820: James Monroe defeats, well, nobody
In 1820, Republicans re-nominated James Monroe for President. The Federalist Party, since it had ceased to exist, nominated no one. For the third—and last—time in history, a presidential candidate ran unopposed.
Monroe received all the electoral votes—well, all but one. A curmudgeon in New Hampshire gave his one vote to John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s secretary of state, so George Washington would remain the only president ever elected unanimously.
Election of 1836: Martin Van Buren defeats William Henry Harrison
When one reads about Davy Crockett’s career in politics, one gets a very different picture than that of the honorable home-spun hero of 1950s TV coonskin cap fame. Crockett was a Whig attack dog, the Ann Coulter of his time. In his insanely spurious The Life of Martin Van Buren, Heir-Apparent to the ‘Government,’ and the Appointed Successor of General Andrew Jackson. Containing Every Authentic Particular by Which His Extraordinary Character Has Been Formed. With a Concise History of the Events That Have Occasioned His Unparalleled Elevation; Together with a Review of His Policy as a Statesman, Crockett (or his ghostwriter) claims that Martin Van Buren “is fifty-three years old; and notwithstanding his baldness, which reaches all round and over half down his head, like a white pitch plaster, leaving a few white floating locks, he is only three years older than I am. His face is a good deal shrivelled, and he looks sorry, not for any thing he has gained, but what he may lose.”
Crockett goes on to administer the coup de grace thusly: “Martin Van Buren is laced up in corsets, such as women in a town wear, and if possible tighter than the best of them. It would be difficult to say from his personal appearance, whether he was a man or a woman, but for his large red and gray whiskers.”
Davy, unfortunately, was skewered on a Mexican bayonet before he could observe whether his skewering of Van Buren hit home.
Election of 1928: Herbert Hoover defeats Al Smith
Smith was lucky enough to have the endorsement of the country’s biggest sports hero, Babe Ruth. After the Yankees’ victory in the World Series of 1928, Babe Ruth stumped for Smith from the back of a train carrying the team home from St. Louis. Unfortunately, Ruth wasn’t the most dependable spokesman. He would sometimes appear in his undershirt, holding a mug of beer in one hand and a spare rib in the other. Worse, if he met with any dissent while praising Smith, he would snarl, “If that’s the way you feel, the hell with you!” and stagger back inside.
Election of 1860: Abraham Lincoln defeats Stephen Douglas
While Stephen Douglas waffled on the slavery issue, making such strange pronouncements as, “I am for the negro against the crocodile, but for the white man against the negro,” Lincoln was plainly antislavery, which left him open to attack from racist elements of the Democratic Party. In one Democratic poster, he was pictured being carried into the lunatic asylum by numerous “supporters.” One was a black man dressed in fancy clothes who was saying: “Da white man hab no rights at collud pussuns am bound to spect.” And just to make the whole poster a little more offensive, the artist included a feminist screeching: “I want women’s rights enforced and man reduced in subjugation to her authority!”
Election of 1868: Ulysses S. Grant defeats Horatio Seymour
In 1868, even though an entire war had just been fought over slavery, black votes were counted in only sixteen of the thirty-seven states. Eight of these states were in the former Confederacy. (Blacks were registered to vote in Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, but the electoral votes in these states did not count because they had not yet been readmitted to the union.) Connecticut did not allow blacks to vote, and New York made ownership of $250 worth of property a requirement before allowing a black citizen to cast his ballot.
Election of 1880: James Garfield defeats Winfield Hancock
On October 20, 1880, James Garfield fell victim to what is probably the first October Surprise in U.S. presidential election history. A newspaper improbably named the New York Truth printed a letter purportedly written by Garfield to an H.L. Morey of the Employers Union of Lynn, Massachusetts. In it Garfield wrote that the “Chinese problem” (the fears of whites in the West that Chinese immigrants would take jobs from them) was not a problem at all, and that employers had the right “to buy labor where they can get it the cheapest.”
This struck terror into those who had been trying to keep the Chinese out of America, particularly Californians. Garfield certainly did not write the Morey letter and was able to refute it. Investigation showed that there was no Morey and no Employers Union in Lynn, Massachusetts, either. The letter was traced to the hand of one Kenward Philp, a Truth journalist who was later arrested and indicted for fraud.
Despite the fact that Garfield was able to prove his innocence, the Morey letter hurt him. It caused him to lose California, which almost caused him to lose the close election of 1880.
Election of 1896: William McKinley defeats William Jennings Bryan
In September, just as the election was heating up to a fever pitch, the McKinley-supporting New York Times published an interesting little article entitled “Is Mr. Bryan Crazy?” The story examined a number of the Democratic candidate’s utterances and claimed that they were not the workings of a rational mind. The Times editors also included a letter from a distinguished alienist stating that if Bryan won the election, “there would be a madman in the White House.”
Not content with this, the paper interviewed several more alienists and published the results two days later. These eminent medical geniuses said that Bryan suffered from megalomania (delusions of grandeur), paranoid querulent (complaining too much), and querulent logorrhea (talking about complaining too much). One other “expert” simply said, “I don’t think Bryan is ordinarily crazy…But I should like to examine him as a degenerate.”
This article was excerpted from Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns, written by Joseph Cummins. You can order your copy from Amazon.
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