You're An Atheist, Madam! 9 Unforgettable Moments in Political Mudslinging
Continued from previous page
4. George Smathers v. Claude Pepper
The year was 1950, and the state was Florida, where all was not sunshine. Pepper, the incumbent Democratic senator, had a few clouds over his candidacy, including the fact that his name and left-leaning politics had yielded the unfortunate moniker “Red Pepper.” But he also faced a formidable foe in the form of one George Smathers, who had been charged by President Harry Truman with beating “that son-of-a-bitch Claude Pepper.” Smathers took him up on it, and during the Democratic primary, he lashed Senator Pepper with accusations of Stalin worship, among other things.
But what goes down in history was a speech that never occurred, but was nonetheless widely circulated. Known as the “Redneck Speech,” it was supposedly delivered by Smathers to a largely illiterate audience. Part of it went like this: “Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, he has a brother who is a known homo sapiens, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy.” In the end, Claude became Crushed Pepper. Smathers beat him soundly.
5. Lyndon B. Johnson v. Barry Goldwater
The 1964 election was a doozy, pitting two candidates who were polar opposites -- incumbent President Lyndon Johnson and the challenger, Senator Barry Goldwater. Johnson was a masterful media manipulator, and decided to portray his right-leaning opponent as an impulsive extremist. To this end, the Johnson campaign unleashed a remarkably creepy television ad known as the “ Daisy Girl” which successfully painted Goldwater, a Republican, as a nuclear war hawk. It featured a little girl counting daisy petals as the lead-up to a nuclear detonation. Goldwater, alas, could not seem to stop feeding his rival ammunition. He refused to shut up about war and managed to mention the words “weapon,” “war” and “destruction” 26 times in a single speech that lasted less than a half-hour. His candidacy bombed.
6. Michael Dukakis v. George H.W. Bush
Dukakis, twice governor of Massachusetts, endured much on the campaign trail when he ran against Republican candidate George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election. From a nickname of "Zorba the Clerk" for his dispassionate manner to denunciations of his liberal politics that made that label a dirty word, Dukakis had trouble reaching the public through the relentless barrage. The most controversial attack centered on his support for a Massachusetts prison furlough program (which had originally been signed into law by a Republican governor in 1972). During Dukakis’ second term as governor, that program resulted in the release of convicted murderer William Horton, who committed an assault and rape while on leave.
Boasting that he would “scrape the bark off Michael Dukakis," Bush strategist Lee Atwater was off to the races – in every sense of the word. A conservative political action committee affiliated with the Bush campaign, the National Security Political Action Committee, put out an ad called " Weekend Passes," which used a mug shot of Horton, who happened to be black. That ad was followed by a separate Bush campaign ad, "Revolving Door," criticizing Dukakis over the furlough program without mentioning Horton by name. The "scary-black-men-are-coming-for-you-if-Dukakis-wins" meme worked like an evil charm. Bush won, performing especially well among suburban voters.
7. Harvey Gantt v. Jesse Helms
Over the long course of Senator Jesse Helms’ career, the state of North Carolina became a laboratory for noxious political attacks. Gantt, the black mayor of Charlottte, endured two matches with Helms, one of the most savage campaigners ever to hit the trail. It got ugly.