The Contenders: Behind Some of the Most Enduring Dirty Tricks in U.S. Politics - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Contenders: Behind Some of the Most Enduring Dirty Tricks in U.S. Politics

The Contenders: Behind Some of the Most Enduring Dirty Tricks in U.S. Politics

By Sean Braswell


Because it’s dirty, ugly … and utterly compelling.

By Sean Braswell

The gloves are officially off. With the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigns now torching the airwaves with massive ad blitzes in battleground states, we’ve entered one of the ugliest periods in any presidential election cycle. Call them dirty tricks, cheap shots or just good old-fashioned political hardball, but as OZY illustrates in The Contenders: 16 for ’16, airing tonight at 8 p.m. EST on PBS, they have become a fact of life in U.S. presidential politics.

And although some of the most notorious moments in American mudslinging history, like the “Daisy” and “Willie Horton” television ads, have occurred during the general election, many of the nastiest, shrewdest and most effective came earlier in the process, and a disproportionate number in South Carolina. As one of the Palmetto State’s most famous fictional sons, Frank Underwood of the hit series House of Cards, observes: “It only takes 10 seconds to crush a man’s ambitions.” So just imagine what a good 30-second TV spot can do.

Learn more about the showdown in South Carolina between John McCain and George W. Bush by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY on PBS airing tonight at 8 p.m. EST that celebrates the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on earth.

Slinging Mud and Finding a Name That Sticks

On the campaign trail, as on the school playground, you can always count on some name-calling. When Chris Christie referred to Marco Rubio as the “boy in the bubble” or Donald Trump called Jeb Bush “low energy,” the candidate was aiming to smear his opponent with a label that sticks, preferably one that feeds into voters’ preconceived impressions. And such epithets, while nothing new, are rather tame by historical standards. Thomas Jefferson once hired a literary hit man to call John Adams “a hideous hermaphroditical character.” “Presidential elections [are] just as dirty now as they’ve always been,” writes Joseph Cummins in Anything for a Vote. “Democracy has never been for the faint of heart.” Indeed, Adams fired back by spreading rumors Jefferson had slept with his slaves (some vicious rumors happen to be true).

As Jefferson and Trump both proved, emasculating a male opponent works. Who can forget the “Phony Fred” website built by some of Mitt Romney’s 2008 South Carolina operatives, depicting rival Fred Thompson in a frilly French court outfit alongside labels like “Fancy Fred”? Four years later, Romney was on the receiving end of the same treatment when a Newt Gingrich ad likening him to Massachusetts liberals like John Kerry and Michael Dukakis proclaimed: “Just like John Kerry, he speaks French, too!”

Lies, Damned Lies and Clever Misrepresentations

And when it’s not enough to name-call or accuse your opponent of speaking French, you need to get creative with what passes for the truth — a political sport that started long before Ted Cruz’s staffers spread the word on Iowa caucus day this year that Ben Carson was ending his campaign. Such misrepresentations range from the tame — an 1860 campaign circular declaring that Abraham Lincoln changed his socks once every 10 days — to the tasteless — operatives loyal to George W. Bush maligning opponent John McCain (who’d adopted his Bangladeshi daughter) by robo-calling voters to ask, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”

Scaring Them Into Your Corner

The attack on McCain may have been reprehensible, but it demonstrated how effective it can be to play on voters’ fears. Faced with a neck-and-neck race with Barack Obama in 2008, Hillary Clinton’s campaign took a page from Lyndon Johnson’s fear-mongering “Daisy” playbook with its notorious “It’s 3 a.m.” ad showing sleeping children — interrupted by a phone ringing in the White House and the question, “Who do you want answering the phone?” 

Of course, when it comes to scare tactics, all campaign paths lead back to one candidate: Richard M. Nixon. Hell, Nixon would try to sway primary elections he wasn’t even involved in. In 1972, the election that would give us Watergate, the paranoid Nixon set out to weaken the man he considered the Democrats’ most formidable potential nominee, Maine Senator Edmund Muskie. And in a move that made “Daisy” look like an exercise in subtlety, New Hampshire primary voters received phone calls at odd hours from intentionally rude black strangers claiming they were Muskie supporters. Nixon operatives also forged letters from Muskie and even stole his campaign stationery to write voters claiming a rival had been arrested for drunk driving. And, if that weren’t bad enough, hours after learning that another candidate, Alabama Governor George Wallace, had been shot, Nixon ordered that campaign literature from Democratic front-runner George McGovern be planted inside the would-be assassin’s apartment. (Alas, the FBI had sealed the apartment.)

It would be tempting to conclude, as the proverb tells us, that “he that flings dirt at another dirties himself most.” But let’s face it: Nixon, Bush, Jefferson and a host of other tricksters all emerged victorious. “In some of the ugliest elections of all time,” writes Cummins, “the party responsible for the dirtiest tricks usually won.”

Or, as Underwood might put it, “Democracy is so overrated.”

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