Aaah! When Campaigns Were Really Dirty

A web-only essay by Lance Morrow.

  • In my last column I was saying that the presidential campaign is eventually going to turn nasty, despite the current phony war, and that we should not be too priggish about the "negative campaigning" to come.

    American history teems with examples of the eye-gouging, ear-biting style, and on the whole, one prefers that to, say, Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, twitching his little moustache, writing letters home to his mother with the news of the day ("Dear Mater," he would begin), and saying things like, "The future lies before us."

    A classic of the scurrilous genre was the election campaign of 1884 — Grover Cleveland v. James G. Blaine. Cleveland, the hardworking and honest and extremely fat governor of New York, gave a speech on July 10 declaring his high-minded campaign theme: "Public Office Is a Public Trust." The trouble began 11 days later. The Buffalo Telegraph ran a story headlined:



    This was Cleveland's famous illegitimate tyke, 10 years old in 1884, who would be immortalized in the song, "Ma! Ma! Where's My Pa?" — "Little Tom Tid was a frolicsome kid/ A cute little cuss I declare...."

    Cleveland, a bachelor but an improbable rake, acknowledged the child, for whom he had provided support payments to Maria Halpin all along. "Above all," Cleveland instructed his people, "tell the truth." An admirable thought. The New York Sun's Charles A. Dana wrote: "We do not believe that the American people will knowingly elect to the Presidency a coarse debauchee who would bring his harlots with him to Washington, and hire lodgings for them convenient to the White House." By October the Nation judged: "Party contests have never before reached so low a depth of degradation as this." The Democrats, desperate for a sexual rebuttal, came up with the story that Blaine had had premarital relations with his wife, and then, according to the Indianapolis Sentinel, "only married her at the muzzle of a shotgun."

    Blaine was more vulnerable in other areas of venality. Variously, "The Plumed Knight," or "the Continental Liar from the State of Maine," he had so many profitably shady connections and such an improvisational way with the truth that Mark Twain, who joined the Mugwumps (apostate Republicans supporting Cleveland), allowed that Blaine's skill at lying had overwhelmed him, saying "I don't seem to lie with any heart, lately."

    So it went. (I am harvesting this material from a new biography, "An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland," by H. Paul Jeffers, and from Paul F. Boller, Jr.'s "Presidential Campaigns"). Cleveland was accused of draft-dodging during the Civil War. Blaine got identified with the line about "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion," which backfired and hurt him badly among the urban Catholics he needed in the close race. As historian Horace Samuel Merrill wrote: "The depiction of Blaine as an unrestrained public plunderer and Cleveland as town drunk and debaucher was just a part of the material used to fill the vacuum of a campaign devoid of issues." In the end, Grover Cleveland turned out to be a good president.

    To enjoy really filthy campaigning, it is necessary to return to the Founding Fathers. In 1800, John Adams called Alexander Hamilton "an intriguant, the greatest intriguant in the world — a man devoid of every moral principle — a bastard...." If Jefferson should win the election (as of course he did), the Connecticut Courant warned, "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced..." Of course, the vicious campaign rumor that Jefferson had sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings turns out to be true.

    All of this amounts to quite a political legacy. Al Gore and George Bush have a lot to live up to. They'd better get started.