Sunday, October 31, 2004

Let’s hear it for the war of words coming to a close tomorrow, at last. (Applaud with onehand only.) The two candidates have sharpened our focus and nobody’s been killed.

If you think we were more civil, if not necessarily kinder and gentler, in the past, read again about the events of 1804 when Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, leader of the opposition party, after a newspaper reported that Mr. Hamilton had cast “aspersions” on Mr. Burr’s character. The newspaper didn’t even say what the aspersions were, but Burr challenged him to a duel. (You want aspersions? Henry Clay called Andrew Jackson’s mother a whore.)

So far the only published call for assassination this year was sounded across the sea. Charlie Brooker, a columnist for London’s leftist daily Guardian, vented his spleen in a way that would have invited a visit from the Secret Service over here: “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. ? where are you now that we need you?”

We’ve had a grand ol’ time making fun of John Kerry’s Frenchified tastes, but he’s not the first candidate to be called a frog lover. One Federalist sneered at Jefferson’s American roots, accusing him of eating “ground Southern corn, bacon and hominy, with an occasional change of fricasseed bullfrog.” (Some of my Southern friends say that’s actually not a bad dinner.) If Jefferson became president, this wary Federalist continued, wives ands daughters were not safe from “seduction and violence.” (Wives and daughters are of course safe from presidents today.)

Personal attacks on families of modern candidates pale when compared to earlier times. Andrew Jackson, as we have seen, had a particularly hard time of it, and not just for his mother. He blamed his critics for the death of his wife Rachel, who died before he was sworn in. “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God,” she said on learning that her husband had defeated John Quincy Adams, “than to live in that palace in Washington.” She got her wish.

What is different today is the impact of “personality.” Personality is a modern psychological term referring to likeability and relates more to the effect a candidate has on us than to his actual capabilities. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton score high likeability numbers. George McGovern, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry don’t. Richard Nixon was not likeable, either, but his election was merely the exception that proves the rule. Beyond the frothing-at-the-mouth Bush haters, voters generally find this president to be a likeable guy and John Kerry to be a cold fish. It’s possible that personality will determine the winner this time, too.

William Stuntz, a professor at Harvard Law School, makes a telling comparison between this presidential campaign and the 1948 race between Harry Truman and Tom Dewey. “Like Bush, Truman was widely ridiculed—a common saying at the time held that ‘to err is Truman’ ?and widely believed to be too stupid to be an effective President,” he writes on “Like John Kerry, Dewey was a smart man but a dull campaigner. And not so likeable as his opponent.”

Tom Dewey was stiff and boring. Harry was earthy. Mr. Dewey exuded unctuous confidence with repetitive glibness. Harry fought as “one of the boys.” Mr. Dewey’s party stood behind their man, but without passion or enthusiasm. Harry showed a natural masculinity in his soft wool fedora. Mr. Dewey, said Alice Roosevelt Longworth in one of the most famous of all put-downs, “looks like the little man on the wedding cake.”

The Truman-Dewey comparison has its limits, but George W., like Harry Truman, acts as if he understands that “the buck stops here.” That understanding has shaped his foreign policy and, like Harry Truman, he stands stubbornly by his decisions as the nation faces a new and deadly menace.

Truman confronted the Communists armed with nuclear weapons; we all lived in fear. George W. confronts terrorists who are using everything they’ve got to terrify us, taking war to them to keep them out of our homeland. Truman sought to contain menace by limiting its expansion. The Korean War, like the war in Iraq, wasn’t popular, but like the war in Iraq was deemed necessary.

Harry Truman clinched his election at the end of a whistle-stop tour of America, the last of the railroad campaigns, with a powerful speech in St. Louis. He spoke of the press being unrelentingly against him (sound familiar?), and told the voters that he counted on them to think and speak for themselves. “Do your duty as citizens of the greatest republic the sun has even shone on.” He knew how to cut to the chase. We should “give ‘em hell” again, this time for Harry.

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