A brief political interlude

Heading from a "Coffin Handbill" circulated against presidential candidate Andrew Jackson.

Off the field again, in another rare non-sports, non-newspaper foray into the real world.

Sometimes when you’re a sportswriter, you watch what’s going on around you in “real” life and realize that the biggest games are nowhere near a playing field.

The NFL, for instance, is all up in arms over the subject of head injuries. Meanwhile, some activist woman gets her head stepped on while making a pass rush on a Senate candidate in Kentucky. So, in fact, it appears that your skull might well have been safer on a professional football field than outside a political debate last week.

Every time the election ad season rolls around, I wish I had one of those really deep voices that oozes indignation, you know the ones they use for voiceovers in political attack ads: “We all need air to breathe, but John Candidate (mock disbelief) wants to deny air to senior citizens. Our seniors can’t afford John Candidate. That’s why the Daily Megaphone called John Candidate a ‘worthless sack of #*$*&.’ No air, no way (mock disgust). Tell John Candidate to blow it up his *$$.”

But some time ago I stopped lamenting the rancor of the process. In fact, I’m proposing stricter debate formats that limit, say, U.S. Senate candidates to nothing but, “Your momma” insults.

Let’s take the current Kentucky race between Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway. It might sound something like this:

Conway: Your momma’s so stupid she put paper on the television set and called it paper view.
Paul: Your momma’s so stupid when they told her it was chilly outside she ran out with a spoon.
Conway:Your momma’s so poor when I rang her doorbell, SHE said “Ding dong.”
Paul: Your momma’s so fat when she goes to the movies, she sits next to EVERYBODY.

Etc. Etc. Now you may ask, what has any of that kind of talk to do with the important issues of the day? To which I answer — about as much as anything you’ll hear in a current political debate.

It’s like this — in this Internet age of public revelation and exposure, to run for political office is very much akin to those crazy couples who used to go on the Jerry Springer show. They’re sitting there in those chairs, but you know the ex-girlfriend (or current girlfriend) is waiting just off stage. In American politics today, the boogeyman is always in the wings.

In Delaware, a female senate candidate just had some dude come forward to tell about a Halloween hook-up last year. In Kentucky, we’re hearing about college pranks.

And it’s all predicated on the same theme, the theme of every campaign being run in America today. And that theme, in short, is this: “My opponent is the worst person in the world. Ever. No, really. The literal worst person. I’m not exaggerating. Don’t look at me that way. Evil. EEE-ville.”

It is discouraging. But not because the tone of the discourse is negative. It is discouraging for me because it is unoriginal. We’ve been around a long time in this country, and yet, our political attacks have really not evolved nor kept pace with technology.

Return with me to 1828. Andrew Jackson was running for President of the United States against John Quincy Adams. This country was so young that it still had that new Constitution smell.

But these guys hated each other. Jackson had won a plurality of electoral votes in the election four years earlier, but lost the election when it swung into the House of Representatives and speaker Henry Clay supported Adams and helped swing the vote to him in that body. Several days later, Adams named Clay Secretary of State, and Jackson went ballistic.

Adams’ forces attacked Jackson as an adulterer. Jackson had married his wife, Rachel, thinking she was divorced, but the papers were not yet finalized and he had to re-marry her once the papers were complete. They also labeled Jackson a murderer for his part in court martialing and executing U.S. Army deserters, for his well-publicized duels and for his attacks on Indian villages. They produced the famous “Coffin Handbills,” some of the the first well-organized attack ads in American politics, which detailed these killings with six coffins printed across the page.

They also put out this charming little pamphlet with a catchy title: “Catalogue of General Jackson’s Youthful Indiscretions between the Age of Twenty-three and Sixty.” In it were listed all of Jackson’s supposed fights and duels. It reported him to be an adulterer, gambler, cockfighter, slave-trader, drunk, thief and liar. It also claimed that his wife was too fat.

Jackson fought back. Seizing on Adams’ time as ambassador to Russia, he accused Adams of giving his wife’s servant to the Czar for unwholesome purposes. Adams had introduced the young lady to the Czar, but that was as far as it went. Didn’t matter. The charge of “pimp” was promulgated. When Adams bought a billiard table and chess set for the White House, Jackson accused him of bringing in a “gaming table and gaming furniture.”

The attacks on Jackson’s wife Rachel were especially severe. She was called a whore and a dirty wench. The Cincinnati Gazette asked, “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest office of this free Christian land?”

As happens sometimes, the negative ads had little effect. Jackson won the presidency.

Shortly after the election, before her husband even was sworn in, Rachel Jackson died of a heart attack. Andrew Jackson always believed that the stress of that campaign killed her. I don’t doubt it.

But the stress of election season shouldn’t get the better of us. If anything, the 1828 election shows us that we’ve been slinging mud for a long time, and frankly, much more skillfully and artfully than the ham-handed productions we see today.

No, it’s not the anger or spite or uncivil tone of our campaigns that will get us in the end. It’s incompetence, greed and ignorance. In other words, it’s one thing to talk like an idiot on the stump. It’s another to govern like one.


2 thoughts on “A brief political interlude

  1. I’ve been tracking Ron Paul since 2008 and the way presents himself in the “real world” and the way he comes off in print are two distinctively different things. It’ll take me a minute or two to come full circle on this so bear with me.

    I’ve followed politics for quite a while, even when I was real young. I saw a quote somewhere saying that, basically, a person’s politics are inherited and I agree to that,to a point, myself. My mom was president of the League of Women Voters here in Louisville in the 70’s —> early 80’s; also the same in Hopkinsville and Berea, as well. She also help set up the debate b/w Mondale and Reagan here. She also in Kids Vote. Just suffice it to say politics were of often discussed at the dinner table. Having said that, I can’t see myself being on the ‘other side,’even if my parent’s politics would’ve been different. My stint in the military and a couple years total at Wellspring House definitely helped cement/inform my viewpoints even more (my type of politics were a rarity in the military). And, oh yeah, I worked nearly 14yrs for the City Law Dept. in City Hall. So I’ve got to admit to some biases in my viewpoints.

    In politics, style points mean a lot to me for sure–a whole lot. The type of over-the-top negative politics from Nixon and carried forward by Mitch McConnell helped to perfect is a major factor, in my estimation, to what we are seeing today. Politics should be a neutral term AND an honorable profession. The vocabulary has gotten real narrow too and cheap shots abound. The Nixon thing, imho, tainted my generations viewpoints on politics and there’s rather large sag in terms of numbers political participation in that sector/demographics; in short, we’re just getting totally jaded and our viewpoints are not being represented in DC, or anywhere else for that matter.

    I began using myspace as an internet home, more or less, until after the 2008 prez election. I’ve found some very disturbing trends in that ‘sector’ of politics took hold in some quarters; I got sick and wary of avatars with had guns being pointed in my face. In some ways, there seems to be a sick fascination–or even romanticizing in some instances–with over throws and revolution. Actually, saw where an image of Ron Paul morphed into Che’ Guevara and to me that was sick totally uniformed. And the discourse has almost gotten to be like ‘cuttin’ heads’ or ‘doing the dozens.’

    I think there are some things most people don’t factor in when comparing political eras and that’s the immediacy of the internet, repetition in TV ads and the numbers contributing (I’m using that rather loosely) to the discourse. People aren’t listening to each other and what is being said…I think some of us (the voting or non-voting types) need to go to the corner some and think about what we are or are not leaving for our kids and that goes to the style points I was referring to…the name calling ratchets up the heat and venom toxicity’s which would suit some politicians fine for sure. Th GOP (some the Tea Party included) are sending surrogates out to look for voter fraud–that just scares people off and with some parties that is just fine…..supressing the vote is the main goal–it’d be hard to prove to me that’s not the reason why they are using these tactics.

    For democracy to work, in a real way, it’s got to be a mess–it’s just sometimes the hangover is worse than the disease…..

    de Tocqueville (paraphrase)
    People get the government they deserve…

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