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Negative Campaigning

10/07/08 5:55PM By Kenneth Davis
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(HOST) As election day approaches, author, historian and commentator Ken Davis is thinking about negative campaigning - it's history and it's possible consequences today.  

(DAVIS) As electronic spitballs fly through the campaign blogosphere over lipstick on pit bulls and pigs, there arises the great quadrennial yearning for the "good old days" of presidential politics. You know - when great men in powdered wigs and frock coats debated high ideals and weighty subjects.

Like back in 1800, when critics warned that rape, adultery and incest would be practiced openly if Thomas Jefferson were elected - the same year that John Adams was accused of sending his running mate out to procure young girls as mistresses for each of them. Or 1804, when a reporter first wrote of Jefferson's dalliance wiht the teenaged slave Sally Hemings.

Then again, in 1828, John Quincy Adams was rumored to have provided American girls to the czar of Russia. That same year, war hero Andrew Jackson's mother was called a prostitute. Or skip ahead four years, when Jackson was accused of murder and adultery - perhaps the all-time, most often-used charge on this political hit parade.

And we might also remember that in the 1864 wartime campaign, Abraham Lincoln himself was bashed by the opposition as being a "Thief, Monster, and Butcher."

The ever-popular illegitimate child smear was also trotted out against Honest Abe. But the most damaging assault that year was the "Swiftboat" ad of its day: a pamphlet that equated Emancipation with Miscegenation - a newly coined word that meant mixing of the races. Falsely attributed to the Republicans, it suggested that the Civil War was Lincoln's master plan to blend the two races and cynically advised New York's Irish to marry blacks.

Clearly, the notion that American politics was once a serious enterprise, free of mudslinging, is simply another of our great American myths. The politics of personal destruction is as American as apple pie.

But these days, the stakes are higher. Campaign coverage in the age of cable television and the internet makes it easier for "pseudonews" to dominate an endless loop of 24-hour reporting, squeezing out the important issues facing America. As a result, many voters feel they miss out on a grownup conversation about jobs, medical bills, and the country's economic health. Disgusted, many simply turn away.

"The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush," university president Robert Hutchins once said. "It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment."

Then and now, negative campaigning is a political distraction, a corrosive that eats at democracy's soul. And the real losers are not the candidates but We, the People.

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