By Steve Hansen
Former QCS Managing Editor
This year’s presidential campaigns have been called the dirtiest in history.
Well, if you don’t count the Richard Nixon campaign in 1972, the Lyndon Johnson campaign of 1964, or numerous campaigns in the 19th Century, this year’s gloves-off slugfest is probably pretty bad.
Nixon’s “dirty tricks” squad, spawned by the eerily named CREEP (Committee to Re-elect the President) committed the acts, including the infamous burglary at the Watergate Hotel, that forced Nixon to resign during his second term.
For example, CREEP knew its fake letter on opponent Ed Muskie’s campaign would be found out. What it was hoping for was an extreme reaction from Muskie.
He delivered. He threw a public tantrum, complete with tears, and lost enough ground to quit his campaign.
The Johnson campaign frightened people into thinking right-winger Barry Goldwater would doom the nation to nuclear war. That smear campaign, too, worked well.
These mid-20th Century campaigns, however, had nothing on the ferocity of some of the presidential contests of the 19th Century.
In 1884, Grover Cleveland had to fight charges he had fathered a child out of wedlock. James G. Blaine’s campaign even put the charge into verse:
“Ma, ma, where’s my pa/Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”
Cleveland versifiers got back at Blaine with “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine/Continental liar from the state of Maine.”
John Quincy Adams’ 1828 campaign spread word that Andrew Jackson had executed six men under his command for desertion, even though the men had said they thought the war of 1812 was over. The Adams advocates used handbills that included Jackson’s name and six coffins.
They also accused Jackson of cannibalism.
Jackson won the election.
In 1800, a writer working for Thomas Jefferson called John Adams, his opponent, a “repulsive pedant” and a “hideous (sexually questionable) character.”
The Adams campaign responded by calling Jefferson a “mean spirited, low-lived fellow” and questioned his parentage.
This year’s surprising campaigns have produced more venom than usual, but we’ve seen worse.
New York Times writer Peter Manseau paraphrased historian Gil Troy, observing, “Brutal campaigns endure not only because they let off the collective steam of 300 million opinionated Americans, but because — unlikely as it seems — they work.”
Steve Hansen writes about our life and times from his perspective of a retired Tucumcari journalist. Contact him at: