Friday, February 29, 2008

Hello, Moscow Calling!

The controversial new Hillary Clinton TV spot shows children sleeping while a phone relentlessly rings and a dire voice-over narrator asks: "There's a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Who do you want answering the phone?"
The answer, of course, is Hillary , but I agree with the Obama campaign that the tactic is so old it creaks. It harkens back to 1964 Lyndon Johnson-Barry Goldwater smearfest, not just to Johnson's famous "Daisy" spot, but to Johnson's style of campaigning, as well. At campaign stops LBJ would ask his audience to think really hard, which candidate would they like to see in the White House, Johnson or Goldwater? “Which man’s thumb do you want to be close to the button…which man do you want to reach over and pick up that hotline when they say, ‘Moscow calling’?”
Different generation, same scare tactics. LBJ's use of them was quite effective against Goldwater who, despite his later rehabilitation, was one scary dude when it came to making reckless nuclear pronouncements. It's Obama's inexperience Hillary is going after here, of course. It'll be interesting to see if it works.....

A Kind and Overruling Providence

Below, one of my favorite little known elections, in 1844, between Democrat James Polk and Whig Henry Clay. Can any of us imagine this contest taking place today, beginning with the glee the Democrats took in the fact that William Henry Harrison died in office?

One month into his term as president, William Henry Harrison was dead of a pneumonia supposedly brought on by speaking for such a for over 100 minutes without hat or coat as he made his inaugural address on a blustery March day.
The Whigs were bereft, the Democrats joyous. So strong still were the ill-feelings lingering from 1840 that most of Democrats did not even pause for a hypocritical moment of silence for the fallen President. Poet William Cullen Bryant said he regretted Harrison’s death “only because he did not live long enough to prove his incapacity in the office of President.” And former President Andrew Jackson turned his eyes heavenward, calling Harrison’s death: “the deed of a kind and overruling Providence.”
The Whigs hopes were now on John Tyler, the first vice-president ever to replace a sitting President, the man whom John Quincy Adams tartly dubbed “His Accidency.” What transpired proved to future political generations that choosing a vice-presidential candidate is a lot like picking a spouse—after the honeymoon, things are open to change.
Once in power, Tyler started acting far more like a Democrat than the “firm and decided” Whig he had declared he was. He vetoed the Whig’s bill for a new Bank of the United States, to replace the one Jackson had gutted, and went head to head with Whig leader Henry Clay, who resigned his Senate seat in protest. Actually, all but one member of Tyler’s cabinet quit; essentially, the party disowned its own President, declaring in an extraordinary statement: “those who bought the President into power can no longer, in any manner or degree, be justly held responsible or blamed for [his actions]…”
Naturally, Tyler’s chances of being Whig candidate for President in 1844 were less than zero. He made overtures to the Democrats, but they didn’t trust him, either, and so he was left out in the cold. But he did have one surprise up his sleeve, which would seriously affect the coming election. In 1843, he negotiated a treaty to annex the slaveholding Republic of Texas (heretofore, because of the volatile slavery issue, the Texas issue had been sidestepped by both parties). But Tyler put a patriotic spin on the whole thing—if we don’t grab Texas, he proclaimed, Mexico will. Although his treaty was vetoed by the Senate in 1844, the issue of annexation was the pivot around which the election revolved.
The Whigs got together in Baltimore on May 1, 1844, and nominated Henry Clay for President. They picked New Jersey politician Theodore Frelinghuysen for vice-president, a so-called “Christian gentleman” who was supposed to balance Clay’s reputation for living, boozing, and cards.
The Democrats met a month later, also in Baltimore. Their convention was stormy, to say the least. Martin Van Buren was considered the front running candidate, but his nomination was blocked by forces which opposed his opposition to the Texas annexation. Finally, after eight rounds of balloting, James K. Polk, former Speaker of the House and Andrew Jackson protégé, was picked as a compromise candidate. The vice-presidential nod went to Pennsylvania lawyer George M. Dallas.

The Candidates

Democrat: James Polk
James who? That’s what most people in the country went around saying after the Democratic pick was announced. But Polk, former governor of Tennessee as well as House Speaker, was admired by many Democrats as a solid and loyal party member. The Whigs hated Polk. On Polk’s last day as Speaker of the House, Henry Clay had made a special trip over from the Senate to shout from the visitor’s gallery: “Go home, God damn you. Go home where you belong!”

Whig: Henry Clay
Clay had influenced American politics for 25 years as House Speaker, Senator and party leader. This was his third try for the Presidency, after 1824 and 1832, and he wanted it badly.

The Campaign

The Whigs thought gleefully went after Polk’s obscurity. Staying “on-message,” they made derisive comments to newspaper editors all over the country: “Who is James K. Polk?” they cried. “Good God, what a nomination.” They claimed that the very raccoons in the forests of Tennessee were now singing:

“Ha, ha, ha, what a nominee
Is Jimmy Polk of Tennessee!”

You couldn’t call Henry Clay obscure, but the Democrats fired back at something else—the candidate’s supposed baggage train of gambling, dueling, womanizing and, by the Eternal!, swearing. An alleged Protestant minister wrote a letter published in numerous Democratic papers claiming to have heard Clay curse extensively during a steamboat trip. A pamphlet entitled “Henry Clay’s Moral Fitness for President” claimed that Clay had violated each of the Ten Commandments with malice and lasciviousness aforethought: “The history of Mr. Clay’s debaucheries and midnight revelries in Washington is too shocking, too disgusting, to appear in public print.” Another popular leaflet “Twenty-one Reasons Why Clay Should Not Be Elected”—listed as Reason Two that “Clay spends his days at the gambling table and his nights in a brothel.”
Clay was also accused of being a white slaver (“If we cannot have black slaves we must have white ones,” he is most improbably quoted as saying). And the Democrats hammered again and again at the “corrupt bargain,” he and John Quincy Adams supposedly made to steal the Presidency from Jack in 1828.
Not a great deal of this was true about Clay, of course, but he played enough cards, drank enough liquor, and had participated in at least one duel, so some of the mud stuck. It was much harder to slander James K. Polk, a man so thoroughly colorless that his nickname was “Polk the Plodder.”
The Whigs tried to brand Polk as a man who owned slaves, in order to elicit votes from abolitionists, but this was a little tricky, since both Polk and Clay were slave-owners. The Whigs got around this by claiming it was all a matter of degree—that Polk was really “an ultra slaveholder,” in slavery “up to his ears.” In other words, much more pregnant than Clay. One Whig newspaper carried a story claiming that Polk had branded the initials J.K.P onto the shoulders of a group of forty of his slaves. This was so patently untrue that the paper was forced to print a retraction.

The Winner:
The term “manifest destiny” was not coined by New York journalist John L. O’Sullivan until 1845, but that’s what the 1844 election was all about. Polk was firmly in favor of annexation—not only of Texas, but of Oregon Territory, as well—hence his famous campaign slogan, “Fifty-four-Forty or Fight!” which referred to the northernmost latitude to which America should extend. Clay waffled on annexation, which cost Southern votes and annoyed Northerners. And there was one other factor, an effective third party outing by the Liberty Party of New York—a group of Abolitionists and radicals—who garnered 62,000 votes nationwide.
In the end, Polk beat Clay by only about 38,000 popular votes, although he bested him in the Electoral College 170 to 105.

The Nasty Personal Smear That Henry Clay Only Wished Were True.
Democrats accused Clay, an admitted lover of gambling, of having invented poker. In fact, Clay was only a superb practitioner of the newfangled bluffing card game based on the English game of brag.

Hey, Go Easy on That Stuff!
In desperation to find something to smear Polk with, Sam Houston, hero of the Texas war against Mexico, proclaimed that moderate drinker Polk was “victim of the use of water as a beverage.”

Voter Fraud, 1844 Style.
In New York City, New York bosses used their influence to naturalize thousands of Irish immigrants so that they could vote for Polk. The Whigs replied by telling the Irish that Clay’s name was really “Patrick O’Clay,” from the ould sod.
In what is probably the first floating voter fraud, a Democratic Party boss in New Orleans sent a boatload of Democrats up the Mississippi. They stopped and voted in three different places.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Peeling that bark

Yet another minor Obama slander has arisen today that may give a taste of the general election to come. Introducing a John McCain rally in Cincinnati, radio host Bill Cunningham repeatedly called Obama by all three names, as in “at one point, the media will quit taking sides in this thing and start covering Barack Hussein Obama” and saying that the journalists should “peel the bark off Barack Hussein Obama.” Crowd-pleasing stuff, at a McCain rally. Although McCain hastened to distance himself from these remarks, it's foretaste of things to come. It's also a haunting memory from one of the nastiest elections in the last 20 years, the 1988 contest between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, when Bush's campaign manager Lee Atwater famously said, re Dukakis: "I'll strip the bark off that little bastard and make Willie Horton his running mate."
The result was one of the most racially divisive elections in American history. "Stripping the bark"--perhaps William Safire can track down the derivation of that one-- never bodes well in American politics.

Turban Tornado

The current dust-up over the photograph of Obama in traditional Somali dress is a sample of both how nasty and how absurd things are getting between the two camps. Sure, Obama looks ridiculous with a turban--so did Michael Dukakis with a tanker's helmet on in 1988. While it's highly doubtful Hillary ordered the photo released, it is possible someone in the campaign did. On the other hand, numerous photographs, parodies, and cackling laugh tracks of Hillary have abounded during this campaign -- did none of these come from Obama sympathizers?
Sadly for Hillary supporters, this kind of thing is one more reason why she would have trouble winning in the general election. She simply cannot defend herself from attack without her opponent making her seem shrill. The story's coming out now about Hillary's frustration with the campaign are understandable. The press had already lionized Obama and even "pre-martyred" him (see yesterday's New York Times article about the "hushed worry" over Obama's safety). And she is left to flail away. If she did release the photo, it certainly has flopped. Nothing less than a shot of the young Obama vacuuming up a line of coke will do....

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Daily Howl

Just back from spending a few days vacation with my daughter at the Great Wolf Lodge -- a huge indoor water park built around a rustic Alaskan theme: fake logs, fake fireplaces, fake Wolf legends. The waterpark itself has some slides that are three stories high, where one sits on a raft as if one were running white water, and I have to say that it can be a great deal of fun to tear down these chutes in ones bathing suit while outside snow flurries through the air (we were in the Poconos, but there are other Great Wolves around the country).
Like going to Disneyworld, however, vacationing at Great Wolf takes stamina and a stuffed wallet. The park, hallways, restaurants, and gift shots were filled with families and small children; the noise level was set to crescendo. And the level of desire in the air (really greed, let's face it) was off the charts.
All sort of like presidential campaigning, right? Standing wearily in the Wolf's Starbucks early one AM, I looked down at a copy of the New York Daily News to see a picture of John McCain and wife on a factory visit in Wayne, MI, both wearing safety glasses that made them look like they were in an S/M relationship. They looked particularly grim. Why so glum, John, I wondered--then turned to read that the New York Times had a run a story about McCain having a possibly inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist. Despite my weariness and the fact that a three year old belonging to another "Dad"-- as the Wolf calls us, as in "Dad, how many of those Magic Quest wands would you like at forty bucks a pop?" -- standing right in front of me appearing to have pee trickling down her leg -- I grinned to myself. At last, the campaign is beginning, I thought. This was reinforced yesterday by Hillary's accusation that the Obama campaign is misrepresenting her Nafta stance in flyers handed out in Ohio. "Taking a page from Karl Rove's playbook" is the line, one that rings through American history. If it's not Karl Rove, it's Lee Atwater in 1988 or William McKinley's campaign manager in 1896, Mark Harris, or some other evil genius.
But it isn't. It's just presidential politics, the wolf is howling at last. Nice.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Andrew Jackson vs. John Q. Adams: Now there was a dirty election!

Apropos of nothing--or perhaps just because a curious boredom has set in listening to pundits speculate how Hillary is going to revive her campaign, or what Obama's "change" truly means, or just how John McCain will unite both wings of his party--here is the story of one of my favorite elections in Ameican history.

1828 really begins with Andrew Jackson’s anger.
Jackson—the six-foot tall ex-frontiersman hero of New Orleans, the man who as a boy of thirteen in the Revolutionary War received a saber slash across the head for refusing to shine the boots of a British officer, and who then survived smallpox and the deaths of his mother and two brothers and grew up to defeat not only the British in 1814, but also the Creeks, Seminoles and Spanish—well, Jackson was not a guy you wanted to make mad.
And John Quincy Adams had crossed him, big time—or so Jackson thought. So convinced was Jackson that Adams had entered into a “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay to win the Presidency that Jackson’s Tennessee delegation nominated him for President in 1825, and Jackson resigned his Senate seat and went at it.
Most serious historians today feel that Adams did not bargain with Clay for the Presidency in 1824—but this was of little good to Adams at the time. Even before Jackson began running, the portents weren’t really wonderful. On his Inauguration Day, Adams had to compete for attention with a traveling circus that had come into town, not an easy thing in America in the early 1800s. Then he and his wife Louisa discovered that the Monroes had left the White House in a shambles—the furniture was so battered, the place such a horrible mess, that Louisa actually invited members of the public in to take a look, lest she be blamed.
Adams didn’t help his own case any. In his first annual state of the state message (in those days, delivered as a letter to the Congress, rather than given as a speech) Adams focused not on foreign affairs or the future of westward expansion, but…on establishing a National Observatory, a series of astronomical outposts that would be “the lighthouses of the sky,” as he put it. In this Adams was ahead of his time—in the same message, he also lobbied for a regulated system of weights and measures—but it would be akin to a modern president giving an hour long State of the Union address passionately advocating the adoption of the metric system.
Things got little better as the John Quincy Adams administration continued—the whole of it, according even to a sympathetic biographer of Adams “was a hapless failure and best forgotten, save for the personal anguish it cost him.” With cries of “Corruption and Bargain” ringing from Jackson allies in the West (who now included Adams’s own vice-president, John C. Calhoun), Adams was on the defensive at every turn. No wonder he began to feel he was surrounded by “conspirators,” that he was being tried by a “secret inquisition.” He was. A spiteful opposition in Congress thwarted him at every turn, foreign and domestic.

Finally, the Popular Vote
The era of America’s popularly elected presidents was now at hand. In the burgeoning, westward-looking new democracy, the old caucus system was dead and voting by the people had arisen. All but two states now picked presidential electors by popular vote. With the easing of restrictions on voting rights (owning land was no longer a prerequisite, although being white and a man was) more and more people went to the polls.
Presidential elections were about to become spectator sport, bear-baiting fest, gladiatorial contest and blood-letting all thrown into one.

Two Political Parties Again
Predictably, the Republican Party now split into two factions. One, which supported John Quincy Adams and his vice-presidential pick, Treasury Secretary Richard Rush, called itself the National Republicans. They were the party of the old line Republicans, the wealthy merchant classes, and the landed aristocracy.
Andrew Jackson and his running mate, John C. Calhoun, were backed by the western small farmers and the eastern laboring men. At first they called themselves the “Friends of Andrew Jackson,” then Democratic-Republicans and, finally, Democrats. This group would form the core of the future Democratic Party.

The Candidates

National-Republican: John Quincy Adams
It was possible that John Adams—now 61 years old—was running for President just for the sheer, stubborn pride of it, because the previous years had been no picnic. At one point, he was stalked by the first Presidential would-be assassin, a crazed doctor who (in a day when any citizen could, and did, just walk into the White House to see the President) talked openly about killing Adams. (Adams actually met with him and gave him a stern talking-to.) It’s no wonder that historians now speculate that Adams was clinically depressed going into the 1828 campaign.

Democrat-Republican: Andrew Jackson
The General—also 61—was probably at the peak of his powers. Driven both by his sense that the White House had been stolen from him in 1824 and by his deep, sincere, life-long desire to wrest power from the privileged and place it in the hands of the people, he envisioned himself as a president for the common man, leading with his beloved wife Rachel by his side.
Only one part of this dream would come true.

The Campaign
Well, with one party claiming to defend the nation against “howling Democracy” and the other battling “a lordly, purse-proud aristocracy” is it any wonder things soon got very, very malicious?
The campaign got underway after both candidates were nominated in September of 1827 (since each party still operated without national nominating conventions, both Jackson and Adams were put forward in a series of special state nominating conventions and mass meetings.)
Jackson had the immediate edge because, well ahead of his time, he had understood the need for party organizations in each state (“You must avail yourself of the physical force of an organized body of men,” he told supporters). Soon there were “Friends of Jackson” in all parts of the country, members of state legislatures, running newspapers, pushing for the Old Hickory, The Hero of New Orleans. These “Hurra Boys” wrote political songs, printed up pamphlets, and held barbecues and rallies for Jackson.
John Quincy Adams called the Jackson men “skunks of party slander,” but they attacked him with a will, and very effectively. “His habits and principles are not congenial with…the notions of a democratic people,” one Jackson supporter wrote. Others whispered about Adams’s “foreign wife” (Louisa was English.) When the President bought a billiard table and set of ivory chessmen for the White House he was accused of purchasing a “gaming table and gambling furniture.” Adams was called a monarchist and anti-religious, because he traveled on the Sabbath. And he was of course smeared by his association and friendship with Secretary of State Henry Clay, who supposedly owed his position to the “corrupt bargain.” (Clay was not a statesman, snarled The New Hampshire Patriot, but “a shyster, pettifogging in a bastard suit before a country squire [Adams].”)
Adams supporters finally got organized and returned fire with a vengeance. Jackson, they said, had aided Aaron Burr when the latter conspired against the union in 1806, and had invaded Florida and nearly started an international incident. In fact, he had the personality of a dictator. Not only that, he couldn’t spell (supposedly, he spelled “Europe” “Urope”).
The Republicans also published an extremely nasty but delightfully entitled little pamphlet Reminiscences; or, an Extract from the Catalogue of General Jackson’s Youthful Indiscretions between the Age of Twenty-three and Sixty. It enumerated all of Jackson’s purported fights, duels, brawls, and shoot-outs. It also said he was an adulterer, a gambler, a cockfighter, a slave trader, a drunkard, a thief and a liar. Also, his wife was really fat (Rachel did have a bit of a weight problem).
There was very little serious examination of the issues, such as rural America’s desperately needed public works projects or tariff protection for New England manufacturers. Jackson was known for being evasive about what he really thought about anything – a fact which he tried to turn into a virtue: “My real friends want no information from me on the subject of internal improvements and manufacturies….Was I know to come forward and reiterate my public opinions on these subjects I would be charged with electioneering.”
Adams’s position was well-known—he was pro-tariff, pro-public works—but his voice was lost in the din of battle.

The Winner: Andrew Jackson
Balloting took place on different days in different states, from September to November, 1828. America’s first popular vote turned out Jackson, 647,276, Adams 508,074. The campaign had been so bitter that neither candidate made the customary post-election courtesy calls on the other (and John Quincy Adams became the second American president, after his father, John Adams, who did not attend the inauguration of his successor.)
After Jackson took the oath of office in March, the streets of Washington were filled with massive crowds of common people who had come from hundreds of miles away to view this historic day. Jackson supporters famously surged into the White House, wiped their feet on delicate rugs, broke antique chairs and ate and drank everything in sight. Thousands of dollars worth of glass and china were broken, fights ensued, and women feared for their virtue. In the end, the exhausted Jackson slipped out the back door to a local inn to get some sleep.

John Q. Adams, Pimp
As always when people really want to get dirty, they go below the belt. In this case, they claimed with utter seriousness but high absurdity that the prudish Adams, when minister to the Russian court of Czar Alexander I, had offered his wife Lousia’s maid to the Czar as a concubine. That there was a kernel of innocent truth here—Adams had quite literally introduced the young woman to the Czar—made the lie easier to swallow, and Adams was now “the Pimp.”

Andrew Jackson, Bigamist.
The Republicans really upped the ante here. Jackson’s wife Rachel had first been married to the abusive and pathologically jealous Lewis Robards, who had finally left her to get a divorce. She and Jackson, then a young lawyer, fell in love and got married in 1791, under the impression that Rachel was already divorced. She wasn’t, since Robards had delayed getting the divorce decree. As soon as he did, the two remarried.
Rachel—whom Jackson loved deeply—was now subjected to the most vicious slanders. Republicans said that she was a “whore” and a “dirty, black wench” given to “open and notorious lewdness.” “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest office of this free and Christian land,” wrote The Cincinnati Gazette. Slanders of this kind were repeated ad infinitum.
The hope was apparently that Jackson might loose his cool and challenge someone to a duel—perhaps even kill one of his tormentors. But what happened was that Rachel, who was overweight and had some health problems, took these attacks quite literally to heart. In December 1828, after Jackson had won the election, she died of a heart attack. Jackson grieved profoundly—and was as wrathful as an Old Testament prophet. At her funeral he intoned: “In the presence of this dear saint I can and do forgive all my enemies. But those vile wretches who have slandered her must look to God for mercy.”

Most Vicious Broadside
Perhaps the nastiest political attack on Jackson was the infamous Coffin Handbill, a widely-circulated anti Jackson handbill displaying six coffins under the headline: “Some account of some of the Bloody Deeds of General Jackson.” It went on to tell the story of the six militiamen whose order of execution Jackson approved during the War of 1812. The men were the leaders of a mutiny of 200 militiamen who thought their terms of service were up. The army disagreed. All the men were court-martialed, but, except for these six ringleaders, they were merely fined. Jackson signed the execution papers and at the time there was little fuss made about it. Now, however, the coffin handbill held him out to be bloodthirsty and merciless: “Sure he will spare! Sure JACKSON yet/Will all reprieve but one – /O hark! Those shrieks! That cry of death!/The deadly deed is done!”

Most Comprehensive Why You Shouldn’t Vote for Him Statement:
This, from an anti-Jackson pamphlet, pretty much covers it all:
“You know that he is no jurist, no politician; that he is destitute of historical, political, or statistical knowledge; that he is unacquainted with the orthography, concord, and government of his language; you know that he is a man of no labor, no patience, no investigation; in short just that his whole recommendation is animal fierceness and organic energy. He is wholly unqualified by education, habit, and temper for the station of the President.”

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Stolen words

For political junkies it's nice to see today's Wisconsin primary important again. Wisconsin, of course, was a big state for John F. Kennedy's campaign in 1960, when they beat Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota in that primary. Humphrey's people, and the press, for the most part, tried to say that Kennedy's victory was due only to the large Catholic population in the state, which enraged both Jack and Robert Kennedy. And so the Kennedy's went at West Virginia with a vengeance, spreading around plenty of Joe Sr.'s dough--Protestant ministers were a favorite beneficiary of Kennedy "donations"--and destroyed Humphrey.

By the way, it's fun too see a nice little plagiarism scandal today, with Hillary accusing Obama of stealing some juicy lines from his friend, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. It might have been nice had Obama given Patrick a little nod, but as plagiarism goes, this is chump change. I don't usually agree with Obama's "Oh, my god, these horrible mean Clintons are saying nasty things about poor,poor me!" stance, but in this case he's right to dismiss it. Politicians are not a notoriously original lot, as we know--stolen words and ideas are their currency.

Monday, February 18, 2008


While I realize it’s the custom for us to celebrate the lives of our most illustrious chief executives on this day, I like to observe a moment of silence for those also-rans who, er, also ran—the obscure would-be presidential candidates of history.

And so a tip of my hat to….

Lewis Cass, former Michigan governor, who ran as a Democrat against Zachary Taylor in 1848. Cass was a nice enough fellow, but his name rhymed with both “ass” and “gas.” Predictably enough, he was satirized in cartoons as “General Gass,” with cannons farting noxious fumes out of his belly and ass, or as “The Gas Bag,” with an enormous rear end, ready to lift off into the sky, hot air balloon style. It was claimed that Cass had sold white men into slavery, not true. Whigs also said that he was guilty of graft in a previous job as Superintendent of Indian Affairs, but this was false. Finally, they just gave up and called him a “pot-belied, mutton-headed cucumber,” which seemed to sum it all up….

Winfield Scott, one of the most pompous men ever to run for president—that includes Mitt Romney. Scott, who lost to Democrat Franklin Pierce in 1852, spoke to his listeners with the all unctuousness of the most politically correct twentieth-first-century Presidential candidate: “Fellow citizens. When I say fellow citizens I mean native and adopted as well as those who intend to become citizens.” When Scott heard an Irish accent he would exclaim: “I hear that rich brogue. It makes me remember the noble deeds of Irishmen, many of whom I have led to battle and victory….”

Let us not forget poor Horatio Seymour and Horace Greely, who were destroyed by Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 and 1872, respectively. Seymour, a governor of New York, was so nervous at his nomination that he actually mounted the stage at the Democratic convention and declined the honor in inadvertent A-B rhyme (“God bless you for your kindness to me, but your candidate I cannot be.”), then burst into tears backstage (“Pity me! Pity me!”) before finally accepting.
Republicans gleefully seized on Seymour’s tentative acceptance of the Democratic nomination by mocking “The Great Decliner” in what became a famous little ditty:

“There’s a queer sort of chap they call Seymour,
A strange composition called Seymour,
Who stoutly declines,
Then happiness finds
In accepting, does Horatio Seymour.”

Greeley, in 1872, was a bald, rotund, atheist, vegetarian newspaperman running against a famous war hero. Need we say more? After 31 out of 37 states went for Grant, Greeley declared “I am the worst beaten man who ever ran for high office,” Shortly after the election, Greeley began to suffer from hallucinations and was taken to a private sanitarium. “Utterly ruined beyond hope,” as he wrote, he waited for “the night [to] close its jaws on me forever.” He died November 29. Grant attended his funeral…

I’d like to put in a word here for the Reverend Silas C. Swallow, Prohibition Party candidate in 1904, just because I love his name….

1904 also featured Democratic nominee Judge Alton Parker, running against Theodore Roosevelt. The extremely colorless Parker is probably the most obscure major Presidential candidate of all time. Parker—whom Roosevelt (who could be quite mean) referred to as “the neutral-tinted individual”—lacked almost any campaigning or speaking skills and spent much of his time riding off alone on his Hudson Valley farm. The best the Democrats could claim for their man was that, if elected, Parker would “set his face sternly against Executive usurpation of legislative and judicial functions.”

Another obscure candidate was Democrat John Davis who ran against the popular Calvin Coolidge in 1924. I love this quote from him: “I went all around the country telling people I was going to be elected and I knew I hadn’t any more chance than a snowball in hell.”
One or two current candidates feel just that way, I’ll bet….

Finally, a nod to Republican Alfred “Alf” Landon, Kansas governor. Not all that obscure perhaps, but I’ve always loved the guy. He ran against FDR in 1936 and lost by just a horrendously embarrassing margin—11 million popular votes, and 523 to 8, if you can believe it, in the Electoral College. Alf was a kind of rumpled, shaggy guy, a bit like his name. In one of the first uses of a candidate groomer, the Republicans hired a film director named Ted Bohn to teach Landon not to smile with his mouth hanging open, to walk slightly ahead when in a group in order to dominate pictures, and to shake hands with his chin up to give the impression of firmness. All to no avail, of course.
One of my favorite stories from this campaign is how the Republicans tried to manipulate the media, asking the Associated Press to always identify Landon in its stories with the tag “budget-balancer.”
The AP said it would, but only if it could tag Roosevelt as “humanity’s savior.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Counting Change

There's the feeling in the air that we could on the verge of something historic here, as Barack Obama pulls down the states--Washington State, Lousiana, Nebraska and Maine--and today goes into primaries in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. It is beginning to feel like excitement of 1968, when Robert Kennedy jumped into the Democratic primaries, fueled by young people desperate for a change, or 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt stepped in, also running as a candidate of transformation. Hillary in the meantime is saying that it is all a counting game--that the delegates of Texas and Ohio, on March 4, will be what she needs to carry her over the top,but politics is never simply about counting. If it was, Harry Truman would not have won in 1948.
It still isn't over yet and there are a significant number of people who think Hillary Clinton is the most qualified Democratic candidate, but numerous Democrats are making their choices on who they think can beat John McCain in the fall, and a goodly percentage of them have decided that Obama is that person.
At my daughter's elementary school yesterday, the principal told a gathering of young students that they might do well to pay attention to what was going on in the national political scene, that they were living in historic times. They are not too young to understand this. When I was ten years old, John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon (by a hair) for the presidency and even my brother and sister and myself knew that he was something different than the grey old Eisenhower, the only president we had ever known. On the morning after the election, my mother opened the bedroom door and said, rather grumpily, "Well, your friend Kennedy won." For me, that morning was the beginning of the 1960s, an extraordinary era of change.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Across the Country

Sorry for not writing for a while, but I have been touring a lot in the last week promoting Anything for a Vote. Or at least taking the modern-day author's version of a tour--sitting in my bathrobe in my ancient desk chair up in my attic study talking to radio stations on the phone. Perhaps 50 in all, and my voice, a hoarse rasp, now reflects it.
But there is something wonderful about what they call a "Satellite Media Tour." Put on hold and inevitably listening to the local news for about a minute before talking to the host, one gets the sense of skimming across the country, just below the cloud cover. You hear about snow closings in New England, traffic snarls in New York, county road construction in Iowa, pouring rain in Portland. Of course, the commercials--there was Planned Parenthood in the east, Bible Belt church announcements in the West. Plus a lot of pitches for home real estate seminars, debt management, used cars, telephone sales--harbingers, perhaps, of a reeling economy.
Coming into the actual talk program there is usually a blast of rock music, a whoosh as if an airplane engine is taking off. On the more conservative stations, a particularly popular sound effect this week has been the clip of Hillary laughing, echoing endlessly, like The Wicked Witch of the West. But the hosts, whether liberal or conservative or ideologically neutral (at least professionally) were unfailingly interested and courteous, except for one national Fox radio personality whose name rhymes with "sow" and who acted like it (sorry, don't mean to insult pigs). And I had one poor host in Indiana who was horrified to learn that Davy Crockett was anything but a frontier hero of epic proportions (Davy was the Congressmen who, in 1836, infamously claimed that Martin Van Buren wore women's clothes).
But Super Tuesday had callers and hosts incredibly excited -- I have never seen so much interest in an American election campaign. Will Obama and Hillary destroy each other in their quest for victory? (There seems to be a longing in some liberal circles that the two, like squabbling spouses, unite and form one team, although there is little consensus on who would be Pres, who Vice-Pres.) Will John McCain, especially now that Mitt Romney has dropped out and Mike Huckabee made an unexpectedly strong showing, be able to placate the conservative wing of the party? On one station there was speculation about a third party run within the GOP, which caused me to relate an anecdote from 1912. Then, Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose candidacy split the Republican party in two, leading one Republican to quip: "The only question is, which corpse gets the flowers." (Woodrow Wilson's Democrats, naturally, won over a divided GOP.)
Back from radio tour of the country, I can only say that we've never seen an election like this one. There is so much more to come.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

At Last....

Super Tuesday, Tsunami Tuesday, Historic Tuesday, whatever you want to call it, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008, is here. Twenty-four states voting, 3,156 delegates at stake--the biggest presidential primary day ever. Many states are testing new voter ID laws or computerized voting systems, absentee ballots are expected to be at an all time high, since new laws in fifteen states allow for them to be cast without the voter having to provide a reason (such as illness or military service). All of this could complicate the vote tabulation, so it may be a long night before our results are clear.
On the Republican side, most observers are betting on John McCain to be bested by Mitt Romney. The Democratic side is a little bit more difficult to call. Hillary has lost her once-commanding lead, but is still powerful and many politicos think she and Obama will end up roughly even and continue to slug it out in the months to come. I think that, if there is going to be a surprise, it will be that Obama has surged far more than the polls are showing. No reason for thinking this except for gut instinct and more small anecdote: a friend of mine ordered a lawn sign from the Obama campaign ten days ago, and as of Saturday it had still not arrived -- demand was too high. Finally, he went to a local Obama HQ here in New Jersey and managed to snag one, but it was difficult. Quite often insignificant things like lawn signs can be bellweathers in tight elections.
We'll see. In the meantime, anybody with a free moment this AM, please tune into MSNBC at 10:30, where you'll find me talking with Joe Scarborough about dirty tricks present and past on a special extended Election Day "Morning Joe" show.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Historical Moment

I'm talking about last night's Giant win over the Patriots in the Super Bowl, of course. Those of us who have lived in the region for long years are still wiping the astonishment out of our eyes. It wasn't supposed to happen but it did, against a team filled with supreme talent, who also had themselves a reputation for dirty tricks.
Speaking of which, William Safire's New York Times column "OnLanguage" yesterday featured political dirty tricks and, of course, yours truly and Anything for a Vote. Read it here. Safire's researcher had contacted me a few weeks back to ask about the derivation of the phrase dirtry tricks; with the help of Oxford University Press researcher Ben Zimmer I came up with an answer. Space didn't permit Safire to use my whole reply, so here it is below.
The phrase "dirty tricks" was used in a non-political context as far back as the late 17th century, when Thomas Traherne wrote in "Christian Ethicks": "But a man that is a resolved and stable Friend,..[will] continue to serve and love his Friend, though he shews him some dirty Tricks." (This is a lesson in turning the other cheek not many a politician today could practice.)
George Washington, while still commanding general of American Revolutionary forces, wrote of a British peace proposal, "they are practising such low and dirty tricks, that Men of Sentiment and honor must blush at their Villainy, among other manoeuvres." Washington was able to run unopposed for the presidency in 1789 and 1792 and therefore missed out on some of the dirty tricks leveled at future candidates, but even he complained, by his second term, that he had become, as his vice-president John Adams so nicely put it, "the Butt of Party Malevolence."
Throughout the 19th century it became quite common for loyalists of one party to accuse their opponents of "dirty tricks" during campaign season. In this context, dirty tricks meant slanderous remarks as well as underhanded dealings. On Feb. 5, 1828, the pro-Jacksonian newspaper the United States Telegraph carried a headline accusing its rival paper, "The Intelligencer at its dirty tricks again!" And on Aug. 8 of that year, the Telegraph detailed the worst of "all the little dirty tricks lately played off by the 'moral and religious party,' (as the friends of Adams have the impudence to call themselves)."
Interestingly enough, in the 20th century, "dirty tricks" came to be applied to covert military operations. During World War II, the espionage operations of the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the CIA) was known as "the Department of Dirty Tricks" and by the early 1950s, "dirty tricks" were primarily associated with the activities of the CIA. In the 1960s, possibly because of the pervasive cultural influence of the CIA during the Cold War years, the phrase "dirty tricks" was again used in the context of campaign activities, but now having the sense not of slanderous name-calling, however, scurillous that might be, but of secret operations meant to sabotage. The prime example of this--and the election which elevated the phrase "dirty tricks" to the public prominence it now holds, was 1972. There, Richard Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) planned dirty tricks which included the Watergate break-in. And we find, on November 8, 1972, The Washington Post's masthead editorial:, "The Republican Department of Dirty Tricks" ("In the jargon of professional intelligence agents, this is what is sometimes known as a Department of Dirty Tricks").

Friday, February 1, 2008

Hitting the Airwaves

Today and next week I hit the airwaves to discuss dirty tricks past and present-- don't you love it that Mitt Romney in Wednesday's debate accused John McCain of falsifying Mitt's ideas about withdrawing from Iraq. The quote:
“I have never, ever supported a specific timetable” for withdrawing troops."[McCain’s accusation] sort of falls into the dirty tricks that I think Ronald Reagan would have found reprehensible.”
Of course, Mitt was standing in the Ronald Reagan Library at the time, with first widow Nancy by his side, but still...Ronald Reagan, saint though the Republicans would have him to be, certainly indulged in dirty tricks, which included having Jimmy Carter's private debate briefing book stolen and may have included a deal with the Iranians holdinng Amerian hostages captive not to release them until Reagan became president.
But nice try, Mitt.
Anyway, if you want to hear me talking more and more about how history repeats itself --insistently and with purpose-- in American presidential elections-- you can find me on radio across the country for the next week. Today's stations and times are:
7:35 am KLPW-AM/metro St Louis MO .
8:05 am WAQY-FM/Springfield MA-Hartford CT
8:35 am BizRadio Network/Houston-Dallas TX
9:00 am WTIC-AM/Hartford CT
9:10 am WBMQ-AM/Savannah GA 9:40 am KFRU-AM/Columbia MO 10:00am KPOJ-AM/Portland OR
10:15 am *WAXY-AM/Miami FL
10:30 am *WZLX-FM/Boston MA 11:00am *Lynn Woolley Show—statewide TX 11:40 am Traders Nation Radio-national
3:00 pm Pippin Productions-national
4:30 pm WINA-AM/Charlottesville VA