Campaigning, or a Brief History of Slime

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When George Washington was a boy, he copied out 110 "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior" from a 16th-century training manual prepared by French Jesuits for young noblemen. They still make sense.

Rule 9, for example, instructs: "Spit not in the fire." Rule 13 counsels us: "Kill no vermin [such] as fleas, lice, ticks, etc., in the sight of others. If you see filth or thick spittle, put your foot dexterously upon it. If it be upon the clothes of your companion, put it off privately...."

Other rules, less colorful, offer good social and political advice.

Rule 1: "Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present."

Rule 17: "Be no flatterer."

Washington's program covered negative campaigning as well. Rule 49: "Use no reproachful language against anyone; neither curse nor revile."

Washington constructed his formidable character upon these rules, which he observed for all his life. This year's campaign is said to be about character, not issues. Of course, Washington could afford to be high-minded about negative campaigning. He did not want the presidency. He got it by unanimous vote of the electoral college. Hamilton and Jefferson, founders of the two-party system, were the first two great negative campaigners.

Jefferson presents himself as "the quiet, modest retiring philosopher," Hamilton said sarcastically as he warmed up in 1792. It's time Jefferson were exposed as "the intriguing incendiary" that he really is. Sixty-eight years later, Abraham Lincoln's opponents had him down as a backwoods baboon.

Negative campaigning enjoyed periods of folkloric charm. In an election campaign a couple generations ago, North Carolina's Senator Robert Rice Reynolds denounced his opponent for his alleged habit of eating caviar.

"You know what caviar is?" Reynolds would ask, with a squinty and meaningful eye. In a paroxysm of disgust and incredulity, he would answer his own question: "Why, it's fish eggs! Fish eggs from Red Russia!"

Reynolds told the backcountry crowds that his opponent had once sunk so low as go up to Harvard (pronounced HAW-vud). What did the man do there? Why, he "matriculated"! And, worse, he became "a thespian"! Imagine.

Naturally, Reynolds won the race.

In an age of unrelenting saturation television, however, an all-negative campaign hisses like an infestation of snakes, tongues flicking from the television set, voices coiling and insinuating the darkest evils.

Unfortunately, our remedy for negative campaigning has landed us in a state of did-so-did-not prissiness that is tiresome and occasionally hilarious. Politics as nyaaah-nyaah-nya-nyaaah-nyaaah. Thus does virtuousness make us nostalgic for sin.

All the negatives this time are about whether the other candidate went negative. In his "concession" speech in South Carolina on Saturday night, John McCain fired off a few rounds at George W. Bush, and the Sunday morning commentariat went tsk-tsk-tsk about the negativity.

It has become part of the script to treat negative campaigning as a political offense equivalent to murdering your father and marrying your mother. But the crimes cited — marginally misstating the other candidate's record on Social Security or health care, or comparing him to the current president (what savagery, what outrage!) — are so bathetic that the grand, ignoble tradition of mudslinging is trivialized. The political pendulum swings between viciousness and childishness — between tattletaling and spitting in the fire. Take your pick.