The Washington Post blogged Anything for a Vote yesterday in discussing whether or not the 2008 campaign is getting dirtier. The answer is, as I've said below, yeah, a bit, we but haven't seen real mudslinging yet.
I talked later with a Christian Science Monitor reporter who mentioned the rumor that the Clinton campaign was holding back real dirt on Obama, waiting for the opportune moment to use it. This put me in mind of one of the most fascinating episodes in smear campaign history, during the election of 1940, when President Franklin Roosevelt and his Republican opponent Wendell Willkie both had great mud to throw at each other--but held back. Roosevelt had won by a landslide in 1936 over Alf Landon and was now going for an unprecedented third term, but he had stiff competition from Willkie, who was a former Democrat and a charismatic presence on the campaign trail.
The Great Republican Smear
Henry Wallace was Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture and a good one, too, but this liberal politician had a dreamy, spiritual side. To the horror of President Roosevelt’s men, just after Wallace accepted the v-p nod, Republicans passed Roosevelt’s chief of staff Harry Hopkins photostats of letters written by Wallace to a strange Russian mystic named Nicholas Roerich, whom the Secretary of Agriculture had befriended. In one note Wallace wrote: “I must read Agny Yoga and sit by myself once in a while. We are dealing with the first crude beginnings of a new age. May the peace of the Great One descend upon you.”
Another letter to Roerich talked about current events in a weird code: “The rumor is the Monkeys are seeking friendship with the Rulers so as to divide the Land of the Masters between them. The Wandering One thinks this is very suspicious of the Monkeys.”
Translation: the Japanese (the Monkeys) wanted to divide Manchuria (the Land of the Masters, which the Japanese had invaded) with the British (the Rulers). And Roosevelt (the Wandering One) didn’t like it.
Supposedly the originals of these letters were being held by the treasurer of the Republican National Committee in a bank vault. Did the Democrats want people to know that a whack job like Wallace was only a heartbeat away from the presidency? This alarmed the Democrats greatly, but oddly enough, at Wendell Willkie’s personal order, these letters were never used.
Was this because of…
The Great Democratic Smear
Roosevelt knew that the married Wendell Willkie had a mistress in New York, a writer and editor named Irita Van Doren, former wife of Carl Van Doren (uncle to Charles Van Doren of 1950s quiz show notoriety). As it turned out, Irita—whom Roosevelt referred to as “an extremely attractive little tart”—used to be the mistress of Jimmy Walker, flamboyant New York mayor. This liaison outraged Walker’s wife so much that Jimmy was forced to pay her $10,000 dollars each time she made a personal appearance with him.
Roosevelt wondered humorously to aides if Willkie’s wife had to be hired in the same fashion to smile at the press during campaign stops. Perhaps the story of Willkie’s girlfriend should be spread?
There is no direct knowledge of communications between Roosevelt and Willkie, but, interestingly enough, neither smear story became public knowledge during the campaign. Two wrongs may not make a right, but they can sometimes constitute a pair of gunslingers staring at each other down Main Street, each afraid to reach for his gun.