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You're An Atheist, Madam! 9 Unforgettable Moments in Political Mudslinging

A look at memorable political attacks through America's history.
 
 
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Smear campaigns. Muckraking. Last-minutes lies and dirty dealings. As the GOP primary battle turns nasty, we turn to the venerable tradition of American political mudslinging. A recent Pew Center survey says that half of Americans already think the presidential campaign has been too negative. But it’s nothing new.

Back in the 19th century, anonymous pamphlets wreaked havoc on politicians, much like comments left on today’s blogs. Then, as now, slurs centered on sexuality, origins and religion. And woe to the candidate with a funny-sounding name. Sometimes accusations were true, sometimes half-true, and often times as fanciful as unicorns. And they worked. One day a candidate was up, the next day, sayonora.

This list brings you a few of the nastiest moments of American political mudslinging. The following is by no means exhaustive -- there have been scores of down-and-dirty elections we didn’t have space to cover. Tell us your favs in the comments section.

1. Andrew Jackson v. John Q. Adams

The 1828 presidential campaign sent a tsunami of mud through the land. The Democratic-Republican party had split. Jacksonians called themselves Democrats and Adams supporters called themselves National Republicans. And they called each other anything they could think of, so long as it was nasty.

The Democrats painted JQA as a secret monarchist and a fancy pants who lived in “kingly pomp and splendor.” They claimed he was irreligious -- he was a Unitarian, after all! Even worse, they spread the rumor that Adams, as Minister to Russia, had procured a young American girl to service the czar. Yikes.

Not to be outdone, an Adams supporter produced a pamphlet describing Jackson’s alleged youthful indescretions, from brawling to gun-fights. The editor of the Philadelphia Democratic Press upped the ante by printing a handbill suggesting that Jackson had murdered six militiamen accused of deserting in the War of 1812 (these and subsequent posters are known as the “Coffin Handbills” for their depiction of the dead men’s caskets). The National Republicans also didn't hesitate to brand Jackson’s wife an adulteress due to a delayed divorce filing on the part of her first husband. Jackson won, but his wife died soon after and Jackson blamed it on her vicious attackers. (See: Rosmarie Oslter's Slinging Mud for more on this and many other mudfests.)

2. Martin Van Buren v. William Henry Harrison

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz shared with AlterNet his opinion on the wildest political attack of the Republic’s early days -- the one leveled at President Martin Van Buren by his Whig opponents. Van Buren was a widower, and his antagonists accused him of being a voluptuary. A famous speech called the “Gold Spoon Oration” given by Congressman Charles Ogle, a Harrison supporter, denounced him for the “regal splendor of the President’s Palace.” Quite memorably, Ogle charged Van Buren with having the White House landscaper build rounded mounds on the grounds with little gazebos on top, which at a distance supposedly resembled a woman's erect nipple. Ogle had tens of thousands of copies of the speech printed up and distributed. Harrison clobbered Van Buren in the election. But his victory dance didn’t last long. He died of pneumonia a month after taking office.

3. Al Smith v. Herbert Hoover

In 1928, Al Smith found that his Irish ancestry, working-class roots and thick New York accent were prime fodder for his political foes. His support for ending prohibition led to accusations that he was an alcoholic. But it was his Catholicism that really stirred the creativity of his rivals, who distributed literature claiming that the Holland Tunnel, built while Smith was governor of New York, ran 3,500 miles under the Atlantic Ocean straight to the Vatican, where Smith could hold secret meetings with the Pope. In Daytona Beach, Florida, the school board sent a note home with every student containing the following message: “We must prevent the election of Alfred E. Smith to the Presidency. If he is elected President, you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible.” And so on. Smith lost to Hoover in a landslide.

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 knownhomo 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.

Round 1, 1990: The Helms campaign released an infamous commercial known as the “White Hands” ad, featuring a pair of white hands crumpling a job rejection letter as the narrator says: "You needed that job, and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority, because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is.” Gantt lost to Helms.

Round 2, 1996: The second time around, the Helms campaign realized that the race card had been pretty much played out. Helms needed a new tactic, and hit upon another vile strategy. The campaign would paint Harvey Gantt as gay. Gantt, who had been married for over two decades and had four children, was constantly referenced as a supporter of gay rights and rumored to support an undefined “radical homosexual agenda.” The fact that Gantt was an architect—an arty-farty profession in the minds of some rednecks – was enough to kindle the flame. I worked on the Gantt campaign, and recall the tale of a rally in which a man was said to have stood up and shouted to the candidate, “Harvey Gantt, I’ve got two words for you: homo sexual!” Enough said. Gantt lost again.

8. John Kerry v. George W. Bush

Two members of the American ruling elite locked horns in the 2004 presidential election, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and incumbent president George W. Bush. To distinguish them, Bush supporters focused on war and terrorism, hoping to capitalize on Bush’s popularity as a wartime president.

Who can forget the merciless "Swift-boating" of Kerry, which generated not only a new low in mudslinging, but a whole new term? The attack sought to cast doubt on Kerry's Vietnam War record by suggesting he did not really earn his battlefield decorations. The charge was led under the banner of Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, an independent group backed by Houston homebuilding tycoon and George W. Bush fundraiser Bobby Jack Perry, along with oil gazillionaire T. Boone Pickens. They effectively sank Kerry’s boat.

9. Elizabeth Dole v. Kay Hagan

The 2008 US Senate race in North Carolina proves that women can be just as vicious as men in hitting below the belt. Or whatever. During the notorious battle between Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole and challenger Kay Hagan, the Dole campaign hit upon a tactic that would surely take down her rival, who had been inching ahead in the polls. Hagan would be denounced as an atheist. An ad called "Godless Americans," cooked up to target Hagan's religion, featured a voice saying, "There is no God!" over a picture of the candidate's face. The voice was not Hagan's but the ad sure wanted you to think it was.

That was a sling too far for Hagan, who launched her own ad reminding voters that she was a Sunday school teacher. In the end, Dole’s repulsive ad backfired, and Hagan's lead in polls doubled. "Godless Kay" beat Dole with a nine-point margin.

 

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet contributing editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of 'Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.' Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.
 
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