It’s the conceit of every generation that horses have never been faster, whisky has never been older, beautiful women have never been younger — and politics have never been rowdier. But maybe our generation has a legitimate claim.
The clown vs. the crook, the vulgarian vs. the witch, both stained worthies that neither party wants. One is a big talker who can’t keep his mouth shut and his tongue at ease, the other driven by greed, lies and avarice, ever on the scout for loose valuables. Has the republic ever had such a choice?
Well, politics were particularly rowdy in the decades after the War of Northern Aggression, and rarely rowdier than in the year 1884, with Gov. Grover Cleveland of New York, the Democrat, suiting up against James G. Blaine of Maine, the Republican. The Democrats rehashed old allegations of bribes, graft and grease suborned by Blaine, the man in the pocket of railroad barons, the Wall Street villains of his day. Like a presidential candidate we could name, Blaine didn’t brook allegations of sordid behavior but haughtily dismissed them as “stale slander.” This gave Democrats the famous rallying cry, “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.” Not quite as to the point as “lock her up!” But it stirred the masses.
For his part, Cleveland, a Presbyterian preacher’s son of starchy upright reputation, was accused of fathering an illegitimate child when practicing law in Buffalo. (A preacher’s son misbehaving? A naughty lawyer? Surely not.) The woman was a lady of wide acquaintance, and Cleveland, the only bachelor in the circle of usual suspects, manned up, and unlike another president we could name, took responsibility for his sporting life, and paid child support. But in turn the Democrats accused Blaine and the missus of not having been married when their eldest child was born. Bastardy was not fashionable in that backward day, and the rumor was disproved only after the sell-by date.
Passion is as passion does, and we’ve seen passion aplenty already in this campaign, and the campaign doesn’t even officially begin until Labor Day. Rage has replaced mere rowdiness as the fuel of presidential politics. “Anger is all the way around in this cycle,” Bart Rossi, a “political psychologist” tells CBS News. “People sometimes feel a rage, an anger against someone or something, and they act impulsively. In this case, Trump really kind of ‘gets’ you, really agitates some people to act out impulsively and that retained anger shows up.”
Hillary really “gets” a lot of other people. A Pennsylvania woman painted the broad side of her barn as an enormous American flag, and nearby spelled “Trump” in letters the size of a boxcar. “Sometimes we’ll get a lot of honks and waves, and sometimes I’ll get a thumb’s down, but we’ll just wave back, anyway.”
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But no one has let passions get out of control like the mainstream press, but only so called, because in the digital era there is no mainstream, only angry tributaries of toxic venom and lethal bile struggling to be the mainstream. All standards of neutrality and intellectual discipline have been abandoned in the race to see who can be the loudest, the shrillest and the most irresponsible in decrying Donald Trump as a traitor, a mass murderer and a Republican (take your pick).
CNN, trying to live down its reputation as “the Clinton News Network” as it sinks to third place among the three major cable-TV networks, even behind MSNBC, set the standard this week for journalists behaving badly. CNN assembled a discussion panel of Jeffrey Toobin of New Yorker magazine, David Gergan, a lugubrious talk-show stand-in for presidents since Chester Alan Arthur, and Dan Bongino, a retired Secret Service agent who guarded several presidents.
A discussion about whether the Donald’s remarks about Hillary and the Second Amendment was a call for a mob to collect their guns, tar and feathers and join the Donald at the Hillary mansion, was moderated (to grossly abuse the word) by a lemon named Don. When Mr. Bongino said the hyperventilating of the likes of Mr. Lemon and the left had reached “the comical realm,” the lemon lost his cool, considerable spittle and all control.
“What you’re saying now makes no sense,” he screamed at Mr. Bongino. “You should be ashamed of yourself!”
“You don’t know crap about this, Don,” the agent replied. “You’re a TV guy. I was a Secret Service agent.”
Great theater, and footage to be retained for film school to demonstrate to hosts and anchors how not to lose control. It’s a perfect illustration for the rest of us about what happened to politics in the summer of ‘16.
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• Wesley Pruden is editor-in-chief emeritus of The Times.
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