Politics as usual

As the mid-term elections loom ominously (depending on your desired outcome) in the distance, the mudslinging is well underway. This campaign season is shaping up to be able to uphold the status quo in American dirty politics with no problem.
It all started with the Meg Whitman maid controversy. That paragon of lawyerly integrity and virtue, Gloria Allred, came forward in September with claims that California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, in a tight race with Democrat (and former California governor) Jerry Brown, had knowingly employed an illegal immigrant for several years starting in November of 2000.
Whitman and her husband, Griffin Harsh IV, denied the claims, saying that the maid, Nicky Diaz Santillan, had produced a valid California driver’s license, a social security card, and completed and signed immigration papers stating that she was legally authorized to work in this country. Allred later produced the “smoking letter” from the Social Security Administration asking for clarification from the Whitmans because there were inconsistencies with Santillan’s identification.
Santillan was later fired by the Whitmans upon admitting her undocumented status. Side note: this is the same Gloria Allred who in 2003, on the day before the recall election, called a press conference to introduce a movie stuntwoman who claimed she had been groped by then Republican gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Hot on the heels of this little jewel was the Florida free-for-all between U.S. Representative Alan Grayson (D) and his challenger Dan Webster (R). In a film clip produced by Grayson and titled “Taliban Dan,” Webster seems to state, "wives submit yourself to your own husband" and "she should submit to me, that's in the Bible." But the full text of Webster's "submit to me" comment shows a much different context. Webster, the former state Senate majority leader, released a video of his complete comments in which he can be heard stating: “Don’t pick the [Bible verses] that say, ‘She should submit to me.’”
Grayson has in the past compared Republicans to "Nazis," likened Dick Cheney to a vampire, and stated that Rush Limbaugh was "more lucid when he was a drug addict." 
So why have campaigns gotten so much dirtier in the past 20 or so years? Actually, they haven’t.
Mudslinging has been a staple of the American political scene since the early days of this country. Both parties at different times in American history have been guilty of dastardly attempts to influence elections. In the 1880s, one of the worst decades in terms of dirty tricks, Republicans sent bagmen to Indiana — then a pivotal state — with hundreds of thousands of dollars in two dollar bills (dubbed “Soapy Sams” for their ability to grease palms) in order to purchase votes. The 1960s was the era of Democratic dirty tricks — in 1964, Lyndon Johnson oversaw one of the most corrupt elections ever, against Barry Goldwater.
In 1840, the American Whig politician Thomas Elder wrote to a friend: “Passion and prejudice properly aroused and directed do about as well as principle and reason in any party contest.”
The mudslinging definitely is still a big part of our election process, but it’s actually less broad and vulgar than it has been in the past. For instance, there is less aimed at opponent’s physical attributes. In the election of 1800, one of the dirtiest in American history, the venomous hack writer James Callendar (secretly hired by Thomas Jefferson) assailed then-President John Adams as a “repulsive pedant” and “a hideous hermaphroditical character,” whatever that means. Later in the 19th century, Martin Van Buren was accused of wearing women’s corsets (by Davy Crockett, no less) and James Buchanan (who had a congenital condition that caused his head to tilt to the left) was accused of having unsuccessfully tried to hang himself. Oh, and Abraham Lincoln reportedly had stinky feet.
The 20th century began this way; at the 1912 Republican National Convention, Teddy Roosevelt, wearing a sombrero and smoking a cigar, cheerfully referred to William Howard Taft, the sitting President and Roosevelt’s former vice president, as “a rat in a corner.” (The rodent motif is popular — FDR liked to call Alf Landon, his 1936 opponent, “the White Mouse who wants to live in the White House.”) You won’t find this kind of thing out in the open too much today, although you still see it in some of the nastier primary campaigns, such as the hatchet job done on John McCain in 2000 by his fellow Republicans, no less.
The chances that American political campaigns will ever be squeaky clean are slim and none, and Slim has left town. There is too much at stake for either party to allow even the meanest opportunity to slip by. And perhaps most sadly, dirty politics work. Almost immediately upon the exposure of “maid-gate”, Whitman dropped five full points in the next poll, and has yet to regain those points.
So sit back, grab a cold beverage of your choice, and enjoy the fun.
And in this corner…

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