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PRUDEN: When mere political rhetoric was for sissies
Question of the Day
We’re almost there. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have inflicted maximum damage on each other. Campaign wise men have slipped into the pooh-pooh mode, pooh-poohing the other side’s claims of good news. The dainty and delicate, afraid of the sight of blood, can relax, have a cookie and sip a nice cuppa tea (herbal recommended).
As American campaigns go, this one has been lively but not particularly vicious, unless you’re Mitt Romney and accused of dooming. He was accused of dooming one woman to death by cancer, and plotting to doom a young unmarried law student to birthing lots of babies by cutting off her supply of government condoms. It was never clear how many she needed, or how often.
That’s the sweetness of campaigns: Politicians never have to be very clear. If you can work murder or sex into an accusation, it becomes believable, and if you can work both into the narrative, you can count on it going “viral” and a lot of people will see and hear it, and, best of all, repeat it.
The campaign was painful to President Obama, who slept through the first debate — and when he woke up, he looked like he had banged his head on the rafters in the rarified places where presidents live. Messiahs, even minor-league messiahs from the South Side of Chicago, usually don’t have to explain themselves. He dreams dreams of sugar plums and Big Bird, and if he has nightmares about the great betrayal of his ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, there’s always someone around him to say it never happened. He can (and probably will) blame George W. Bush.
Still, the dainty and the delicate got off easy this time. Vice President Biden saying dopey things is welcome comic relief, as in telling a rally last week that “there’s never been a day in the last four years I’ve been proud to be his vice president, not one single day.” Everyone is groggy now and we should cut Joe a little slack, and anyway, he’s not a patch on some of the vice presidents of the past. When John Adams was George Washington’s vice president, he and Thomas Jefferson once went after each other with fireplace tongs. In those more robust days, mere rhetoric was for sissies.
David McCullough, the masterful presidential historian (“John Adams” and “Truman”), thinks the charge and countercharge in the campaign of 1800 might have been the standard for mudslinging. Jefferson paid a journalist to write that Adams was a mentally unbalanced hermaphrodite, and Adams spread the word that if Jefferson won there would be murder, rape and robbery in the streets. Jefferson won, but Adams was right. Two centuries later, we’ve got murder, rape and robbery in lots of streets. (You could fact-check it.)
Connoisseurs of the rough stuff are particularly fond of the campaign of 1828. Andrew Jackson’s surrogates accused John Quincy Adams of wearing silk underwear and pimping for the czar of Russia. The Adams campaign responded by calling Jackson’s wife, Rachel, a whore because she married Old Hickory before she got word that divorce from her first husband was final.
Grover Cleveland was the only Democratic president between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century, admired for his stern Presbyterian rectitude, strong against corruption. But like ol’ Bubba, he had an eye for the ladies. In the campaign of 1884, the Republicans discovered that he had fathered a child before he shuffled off from Buffalo, where he was the mayor. He admitted that he had paid child support to the child’s mother, though later it turned out that he admitted paternity because he was the only bachelor among several of the lady’s “good and dear friends.” A preacher’s son, he was a true gallant.
The Republican gaffe patrol (on patrol in balloons in those days) raised the most famous mocking chant in presidential politics: “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” When the votes were counted and Cleveland had defeated James G. Blaine, “the continental liar from the state of Maine,” the triumphant Democrats shouted their answer: “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”
The cleverest thing a president could think to say about his opponent this year was that Mitt couldn’t tell the difference between a battleship and a bayonet, or that he wants to kill that big imaginary bird. But in the days of yore, the pols were sometimes poets. All we have now are pollsters, pundits and campaign consultants.
Well, it’s time to vote, go home and shut up. Further disturbing the peace should be a felony.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Editor Emeritus — American journalist legend and Vietnam War author James Wesley Pruden, Jr. is Editor Emeritus of The Washington Times. Pruden’s first job in the newspaper business dates back to 1951 as a copyboy at the now defunct Arkansas Gazette where he later became a sportswriter and an assistant state editor. In 1982, he joined The Washington Times, four ...
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