Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Here's Mud in Your Eye

Sen. John McCain: "I pledge again a respectful campaign. A respectful campaign based on the issues and based on the stark differences we have on the vision for the future of America."

Sen. Barack Obama: "We don't need John McCain and I to be demonizing each other. You won't get that from my campaign."

That lofty rhetoric was uttered some months back by two gentlemen who undoubtedly had their fingers crossed when they spoke.

Because they, and we, understand there has never been a "respectable campaign" marked by "civil substantive debate" in the political history of the United States.

And this year is no exception. Obama is a "socialist" who "pals around with terrorists" while McCain is a Depends-wearing dupe of the Bush administraion who is "out of touch."

So much for clean campaigning.

When and where did the grand old tradition of mudslinging in American politics start?

It began a long, long time ago, according to historians.

No less than Founding Fathers John Adams, the incument president, and his friend and vice president Thomas Jefferson faced each other in the election of 1800.

The niceities didn't last long.

Jefferson's camp accused President Adams of having " a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

In return, Adams' men called Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."

They didn't stop there. Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson, the eventual winner, was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.

The election of 1884 pitting Grover Cleveland against James G. Blaine was one for the ages as well.

Blaine had been prevented from getting the Republican presidential nomination during the previous two elections because of the stigma of the "Mulligan letters." In 1876, a Boston bookkeeper named James Mulligan had located some letters showing that Blaine had sold his influence in Congress to various businesses.

It was perfect fodder for the Cleveland forces.

But then, according to historical accounts, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph reported that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock, that the child had gone to an orphanage, and that the mother had been driven to an asylum.

Cleveland's campaign decided that candor was the best approach to this scandal: they admitted that Cleveland had formed an "illicit connection" with the mother and that a child had been born and given the Cleveland surname. They also noted that there was no proof that Cleveland was the father, and claimed that, by assuming responsibility and finding a home for the child, he was merely doing his duty.

Finally, they showed that the mother had not been forced into an asylum; her whereabouts were unknown. Blaine's supporters condemned Cleveland by singing "Ma, Ma, Where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha."

But Cleveland's high road approach won the day.

Contemporary campaigns have had memorable moments.

Remember the "Daisy Girl" television ad from the Lyndon Johnson campaign? It showed a cute blonde child picking the pedals from a flower only to be obilterated in a nuclear explosion. The unspoken message was that Barry Goldwater was threatening a nuclear war. It only ran once but is considered the most famous ad of all time.

The so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attempted to descredit John Kerry, his war record and his integrity with some success.

Geroge H.W. Bush unleased the Willie Horton ad on Michael Dukakis, holding him responsible for a prison furlough program in which Horton, a convicted murderer, committed armed robbery and rape.

In 1968, the Hubert Humphrey campaign featured an ad that had the words "Agnew for Vice President? on the screen" accompanied by a soundtrack of a man laughing hysterically, louder and louder, until the laughs veer off into a groan. Richard Nixon had the last laugh, however.
So is negative campaigning successful?

Certainly, negative ads are the ones we remeber.

The conventional wisdom among campaign professionals is that negative ads do, in fact, work, according to one study.. That is, while voters might not like negative ads, their perceptions of candidates attacked in negative ads are tarnished by the information they are exposed to.
But there is a perceptible "backlash" effect when a candidate persistently publishes or airs negative information about his or her opponent, especially when that information is not perceived by voters as immediately relevant to the campaign.

So when you go negative, you take chances.

In the meantime, here are two negative campaigns that are candidates for the hall of fame:

One, in 1934, was aimed at Upton Sinclair, the socialist muckraker turned Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Hostile newsreels featured actors portraying Sinclair supporters as Soviet comrades, saying lines like, "His system vorked vell in Russia, so vy can't it vork here?" Sinclair lost.
The other reported by CNN featured North Carolina's Sen. Robert Rice Reynolds, who several generations ago denounced his opponent for his alleged habit of eating caviar.
"You know what caviar is?" Reynolds would ask, with a squinty and meaningful eye. In a paroxysm of disgust and incredulity, he would answer his own question: "Why, it's fish eggs! Fish eggs from Red Russia!"
Reynolds told the backcountry crowds that his opponent had once sunk so low as go up to Harvard (pronounced HAW-vud). What did the man do there? Why, he "matriculated"! And, worse, he became "a thespian"! Imagine.

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