Mean-Spirited, Low-Lived Fellows Are Nothing New in American Politics

The Mount Rushmore Monument as seen from the v...
The Mount Rushmore Monument as seen from the viewing plaza. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Does Donald Trump have small hands? Is Ted Cruz a wimp (this is a family-oriented column, so I’m using that term instead of the word Trump used)? Are progressives who don’t support Hillary Clinton misogynists if they’re men and traitors to their sex if they’re women? The 2016 presidential race is a bumper crop of insults, with the usual accompanying cries for a “return to civility.”

Reality check: There’s no era of civility for American politics to return to. It’s always been a rough and tumble sport. Election campaigns have never consisted of  the candidates holding hands and singing “Kum Ba Ya” with an occasional break for  sober issues discussions.

In 1800, presidential challenger Thomas Jefferson’s supporters described sitting president John Adams as possessed of a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman. Adams’s supporters retorted that Jefferson was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was the target of personal insults intended to politically damage him from well before his presidency. Jackson killed one critic, Charles Dickinson, in a duel after Dickinson insulted her and accused him of cheating in a horse race.

In 1836, Martin van Buren’s opponents spread a rumor that he was the illegitimate son of former vice-president Aaron Burr, who had also famously killed someone (Alexander Hamilton) in a duel and had been tried for treason.

In 1884, supporters of Grover Cleveland chanted “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine!” Blaine supporters responded with “Ma, Ma, where’s my Paw? Gone to the White House, Haw, Haw, Haw!” referring to the (true) rumor that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock.

If you’ve been around long, you may have heard that George W. Bush was a cocaine fiend with a suppressed arrest record, that John McCain’s adopted kids are actually the children of his affairs, that Al Gore got preferential treatment in Vietnam because he was a Senator’s son, and that Barack Obama is from Kenya.

It’s ALWAYS been dirty, folks. Like Finley Peter Dunne said, “politics ain’t beanbag.” Why? Because politicians want to win. There’s an apocryphal tale of Lyndon Baines Johnson, in a pre-presidential campaign, suggesting that a press release be put out accusing his opponent of having sex with pigs. When a staffer objected that it wasn’t true, LBJ supposedly replied “I know … but let’s make him DENY it.”

I’ll be the last person to suggest that there are no real scandals  to be considered when evaluating candidates for public office. There certainly are. So pay attention. You may learn something important.

But when you’ve cleared the deck of the rumors and insults, what’s left is what matters. Do you agree with the candidate’s positions? Do you trust the candidate to tell the truth about the issues and to have the backbone to do the right thing? Choose carefully and vote accordingly.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.