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Lange: Campaign Rhetoric

05/21/12 5:55PM By Willem Lange
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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange is a writer and storyteller who maintains that the political mud-slinging of campaigns today is a direct descendent of the campaign rhetoric of yesterday.

(Lange) Few of us remember the Presidential campaign featuring this jingle: "Ma, Ma, where's my pa? He's gone to the White House, ha ha ha!" The candidate's opponents chanted the first half, referring to Grover Cleveland's fathering an illegitimate child; his supporters, especially after his election, gleefully responded with the second half. Paternity was never established; but Cleveland accepted the responsibility because, as he said, he was the only bachelor among the possible respondents. He was elected partly because of his forthrightness in the matter.

Many past campaigns make the current candidates seem like medieval Italian buffones beating each other with inflated pig bladders. Those who fear that corporate campaign donations and a lower level of rhetoric are ruining democracy may be right; but you can't prove it by the higher tone of past campaigns. Most have been fairly brutal.

During the Red Scare of the ‘50s, Richard Nixon ran for a California Senate seat against Helen Gahagan Douglas. In his speeches, he fed Americans' deep fears about Communism, calling Ms. Douglas "pink down to her underwear." He won the race, and started down the dark path that ended with his disgrace 23 years later.

Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, ran against the patrician John Quincy Adams in 1828. Adams and his people tarred Jackson as an uneducated bumpkin and poor speller, married to a woman whose previous union had ended in a murky divorce. Rachel Jackson was reviled as a "convicted adulteress" and "black wench." The slanderous attacks on both Jackson and his wife were probably the worst in the history of campaigns. Shopping for her Inaugural gown, she dropped dead at sixty-one.

Among other things. Abe Lincoln was called "that grinning ape in the White House"; and Stephen Douglas described him as "a horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper, and the nightman."

I often wonder how some candidates can sleep at night after looking into those adoring faces at rallies and throwing them rubbish to chew on.

But they're pikers compared to George Smathers of Florida, who in a 1950 contest allegedly accused his opponent of being a "known extrovert" whose sister was "a thespian who sometimes performed her act in public." He'd practiced "nepotism" with his sister-in-law, had once "matriculated with young women in college," and before his marriage was a "practicing celibate."

I'll tell you: sometimes - not often, but sometimes - I do miss the good old days!

This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.

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