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The history of dirty politics

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Timeline

This is a bit dated but completely relevant in light of what is happening now.

Emma Norvell, Page Editor

9/30/2004

For those people who haven't been paying attention to this year's elections, here's a brief run down of the candidates: Bush is a draft-dodging coward and Kerry is a flip-flopping wimp.

Or at least, that's what one is bound to think based on the political ads and slander that have been relentlessly publicized everywhere.

So far, this year's elections have been filled with character denunciations, personal attacks and countless traitorous accusations. "I've been around politics a long time, and I've never seen anything as nasty and as vicious as I have this year," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato in an article by Glenn Garvin at DuluthNewsTribune.com.

And it has not been one-sided. As much as people like to point the blame at the other party, both national campaigns are guilty of these unyielding attacks against the candidate's respective opponents (although it is definitely arguable that one side is a little less dun shy than the other). While the Kerry campaign claims that Bush is running the country into the ground, the Bush administration is busy painting Kerry as an undependable flip-flopper who doesn't have the gumption to run a war on terror.

From the Republican side

For example, nearly all of the speakers at the Republican National Convention questioned Kerry's abilities to effectively run the country. One senator, turncoat Democrat Zell Miller described Kerry as, "more wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure'" as reported in a Seattle Post article.

In response to accusations that the Republican tactics are much more severe and prevalent than other parties, Galloway points out that "Democrats call it a 'bash-fest.' Republicans counter they're simply drawing distinctions for what promises to be the most 'intense' election season in decades," reported Galloway.

But the dirty politics does not stop short at name calling. According to an article on the World Socialist website, state Republican Party Chairman John Dendahl of New Mexico admitted that he had been asked by "someone in Washington DC" to give $100,000 to the state Green Party so that they would support three Green Party candidates in the election. The goal of the request was to take votes from the Democrats. Unfortunately for him, the Greens refused Dendahl's offer, denouncing it as a "backroom deal."

Republican officials tried other methods to divert votes away from Democratic candidates in Michigan where, according to the same story, Republican officials "recruited stealth candidates to run as phony Democrats for nine state Senate seats, all Democratic-controlled districts."

Democrats take their shots

However, the Seattle Post article also said that Chris Vance, chairman of the Washington state Republican Party has seen similar mudslinging by the Democratic side. "The Washington state Democratic Party is selling yard signs that say Bush lied. Just flat out calling the President of the United States a liar,'" Galloway reported.

According to a St. Petersburg Times Online article, the Republican campaign is not the only one to take a few shots at their opponents military career. The articles says that Democrats have accused that Bush "used family connections to get into the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, failed to meet training requirements, was grounded after missing a required physical and may have seen political pressure employed to "sugarcoat" his performance review."

Unfortunately for Democrats, their efforts have not stuck quite as well as Republican attacks on Kerry. On September 8, CBS news aired a report which charged Bush of trying to dodge his military service. The report cited memos which turned out to be fake.

The history of mudslinging

History shows that these sorts of unsupportable attacks and seemingly childish antics are not new to the election game. Candidates for all sorts of public office have engaged in name calling and public denunciations of their opponents from America's earliest days as a democracy.

Not even one of our most admired founding fathers was safe from personal attacks. According to a BBC news article, during the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson was "accused of favoring the teaching of 'murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest,'" by his opponent.

Perhaps one of the most venomous elections was in 1828, when John Quincy Adams was running for President against General Andrew Jackson. According the same BBC news article, Adams was "nicknamed 'The Pimp' by the campaign of his opponent…based on a rumour that he had once coerced a young woman into an affair with a Russian nobleman when he had been American ambassador to Russia."

In response, Adams' supporters came out with a pamphlet which read: "General Jackson's mother was a common prostitute brought to this country by British solders! She afterwards married a mulatto man with whom she had several children of which number General Jackson is one!!"

Then, there was the relentless slander and ridicule that Lincoln endured. According to an article in the Bradenton Herald, his opponents made fun of his "slang-whanging stump speaker" style, Newspapers made fun of his looks ("a horrid looking wretch"), and cartoonists pictured him in racist scenarios. One man from Georgia proclaimed that Lincoln planned to "force inter-marriage between children - that 'within 10 years or less our children will be the slaves of Negroes.'"

Merely two decades later, during Grover Cleveland's election in 1884, Cleveland, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was accused of fathering an illegitimate child, according to a Scripps Howard News Service article. Cleveland's supporters in turn called his opponent a liar.

By the 1950's, with America's red scare shadowing over much of the country, sympathy with communism replaced sex scandals as the most vitriolic accusation one candidate could hurl at another. Scripps Howard News Service article reports that Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy even accused the entire administration of President Harry Truman of harboring communists.

Outside parties

Today, it seems as though candidates don't even have to drag their own name through the slander that is being thrown around. "One of the main tactics in attack advertising is to use third parties to try to deflect the blame," says Joel Rivlin of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, which analyzes political ads. "Otherwise you run a risk of a backlash for negative advertising."

And it doesn't seem to be hard for candidates to find other people to do their dirty work for them. "The Democrats can count on the sell-out movie (Fahrenheit 9/11); the Republicans, a book (Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak out against John Kerry) that was tops on Amazon's bestseller list a week before publication.

One of the most talked about groups is the Swift Vet group which is trying to disprove Kerry's credibility as a Vietnam War veteran. Although the Bush administration denies any association with the group, an article in The Guardian reports that there may be some connections between them. "A mysterious donor in Texas has financed their book and the TV ad in which they brand Kerry a liar (the advertisement can be found at their website)," which Sutherland speculates to have some association with Bush's campaign for reelection.

Similarly, Citizens United, another anti terrorist group has created commercials that accuse democrats as a whole, including Bill Clinton of the reasoning behind the terrorist attacks. In their fight against Michael Moore's movie, they have created commercials for a new documentary, Celsius 41.11: The temperature at which the Brain begins to die, a movie which criticizes Moore's movie and the Clinton administration for not taking enough preventative measures against terrorists. The preview for the movie can be watched here.

Working offensively for the Kerry side is a group called MoveOn.org. The group has many internet ads posted on their website that attack the Bush administration. The commercial which is probably most famous is the ad that, according to this article, "depicts Adolf Hitler ranting in German, with subtitles "translating" his words into a fictitious quote by Bush." The commercial was taken down after many complaints from the Republican side. However, it was later replaced with a second clip with more Hitler footage and the caption, "WHAT WERE WAR CRIMES IN 1945 IS FOREIGN POLICY IN 2003."

Texans for Truth, creates similar ads except that they mainly question Bush's time served for the National Guard.

The use of the Internet

Most of these groups are based out of Internet websites. The Internet has been a main source of mudslinging in this year's election. With the Internet, groups can make outrageous and even unsubstantiated accusations without the fear of censorship or backlash for the political party. "We see wilder stuff there than we could ever imagine on network TV," says Brooks Jackson, who monitors political ads for the University of Pennsylvania's FactCheck.org on Politics OL.com.

But sometimes 'wilder stuff" can include 'not so true stuff.' In order to try and embarrass Kerry, a photograph of a protest against the Vietnam War with Kerry in it was circulated through the internet. The photograph was falsely credited to The Associated Press and turned out to be a forgery. It merely combined two completely separate images to make it appear as if Kerry shared a stage at an anti-war rally in the early 1970's. The picture can be seen here along with an explanation of the picture's fabrication.

With the Internet, more nasty ads, such as the Hitler ones, are able to last longer because it costs less and there are fewer restrictions because it's not coming directly from the party. Even when the ads were pulled from the site, as they both were, they live on through e-mail.

What makes the internet so unique is that campaign positions can be posted online and candidates can deny all association to them, whether or not it is true. Also, as Linda Wertheimer reported on NPR's All things Considered "political ad content isn't restricted by law when it's delivered online, and the assaults are markedly vicious."

Also, the Internet can allow candidates to deny all connections to a website in order to avoid accusations of being too cruel. "Television and radio ads, by contrast, require candidates to take explicit responsibility by announcing their personal approval of the content," Wertheimer reports. For this reason, both Republican and Democratic representatives have proposed legislation to restrict campaigner's use of the Internet.

But as much as we complain about how it distracts Americans from the real issues, dirty politics have been around for two centuries for a reason. "Americans like a good hard-fought football game," said Julian Zelizer, a Boston University history professor in an article. "If voters wanted to hear about Social Security privatization, then we would hear politicians talk about it."

Tim Blessing, a historian at Alvernia College in Reading, Pa., said voters watch closely to see how a candidate might respond when mud comes their way. "It's a test of what's inside a candidate. It's really a shorthand way of deciding whether a president will stand up to a plane shot down in China," he said in this article.

Chris Vance, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party said in an article in The Seattle Post in that dirty politics is not a new development in the world of politics. "Every single election season people say, 'Oh my goodness, it's so nasty.'" Vance said. "I don't think it's any different than it's ever been. That's politics."

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