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Politics Used to be a Civil Affair – And Other Fairy Tales

It’s a common misconception that politics has become increasingly uncivil and was once an affair mainly for statesman. There is no doubt that hiding the unseemly side of politics has become increasingly difficult. The 24/7 news cycle with numerous national news channels endlessly regurgitating the same tidbits of dirt has falsely given the impression that dirty politics and scandal is something relatively new.

Consider these hallmarks of political civility from the past:

  • When Thomas Jefferson mounted his campaign for president, he wired a speech writer by the name of James Callender to pen some fitting words about his opponent John Adams. Jefferson, revered as the author of our Declaration of Independence, sanctioned the following to be written about his opponent. John Adams is “a gross hypocrite” and “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force nor firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
  • When Republican aides asked Warren G. Harding is there was anything that might be used against him in the campaign, he recited a list of possibilities: he chewed tobacco, played poker, loved to drink (this was during Prohibition), and he was having affairs with not only the wife of one of his friends but also a woman thirty years younger than him by whom he had an illegitimate daughter. Apparently it was decided these wouldn’t get in the way because he ran and won.
  • Perhaps the low point of mudslinging came when a Democrat-controlled newspaper reported that Abraham Lincoln never changed his socks more than once every ten days.
  • A sanctioned pamphlet in 1828 described Andrew Jackson as “a gambler, a cock fighter, a slave trader and the husband of a really fat wife.” While the first three were true, political attacks on Jackson’s wife were so vicious from supporters of his opponent, John Quincy Adams, that Rachel Jackson died a short time before the new president’s electoral ball. Jackson blamed his wife’s death on the attacks for the rest of his life.
  • American icon and congressman, Davy Crockett, accused candidate Martin Van Buren of secretly wearing women’s clothing saying, “He is laced up in corsets!”

In this day of instant news, could you imagine Mike Huckabee campaigning against then-candidate Obama with a campaign slogan like “Give ‘em hell Mike?” Perhaps not but Harry Truman earned the slogan “Give ‘em Hell Harry” because of his direct quote while campaigning for John F. Kennedy. His quote, “If you vote for Nixon, you ought to go to hell!”

The lack of civility reaching backwards in American history is not reserved for the print media. One of the most memorable TV campaigns ads was sponsored by opponents of Barry Goldwater. The infamous images were of a child in a field of daisies disappearing in a mushroom cloud of an atomic blast. Goldwater’s opponent, Lyndon Johnson, won by landslide in 1964 and promptly turned Vietnam into a quagmire that this nation has yet to shake from its collective conscience.

The question from this little history lesson then is this – are we more civil now than before? The answer is no. Seems civility in politics has been about the same as long as man has been around.

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.”
Earnest Benn

“In war, you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times.”
Winston Churchill

“Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”
Ronald Reagan

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