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.