Max Boot: Milder Mud-Slinging Today

Roundup: Historians' Take

Max Boot, in the Los Angeles Times (August 19, 2004):

Bush supporters are furious that some liberals have the temerity to accuse the president of misusing terrorism alerts for political purposes. Kerry supporters are equally steamed that some conservatives are questioning whether Kerry really performed all those heroic acts in Vietnam.

Charges of negative campaigning fill the air like confetti at one of the political conventions. Much of this, of course, is nakedly self-serving. The typical formulation of politicians on the make is:"I pledge to run a campaign on the issues, unlike my low-life opponent who is plumbing new depths of depravity."

John Kerry offered a classic of this genre in his acceptance speech in which he pleaded with President Bush,"Let's build unity in the American family, not angry division" — and then declared,"Let's never misuse for political purposes the most precious document in American history, the Constitution of the United States," implying that Bush had done just that. Oh, he's a great uniter, Kerry is.

But whaddaya expect from a pol? What's amazing is that the press corps falls for this schtick. Every four years it reports with a straight face that the campaign in progress is the dirtiest of all time. The Washington Post already proclaimed on its front page all the way back in May that Bush was guilty of"unprecedented negativity." What did this extraordinary defamation consist of? The Bushies had accused Kerry of, inter alia, questioning"whether the war on terror is really a war at all," opposing key provisions of the Patriot Act and proposing to repeal Bush's tax cuts.

Never mind that all of these charges are accurate. Even if Bush really had been guilty of making"wrong, or at least seriously misleading charges," as the Post alleged, one is struck by the mildness of the charges involved. You call this mudslinging?

Like a few hundred thousand other people, I've been reading Ron Chernow's enthralling biography of Alexander Hamilton. It serves as a timely reminder that the era of the founding fathers, which we usually think of (correctly) as a time of high-minded philosophical discourse, was also full of venomous vituperation that has no parallel in modern America.

Federalists saw the Democratic-Republicans (forerunners of today's Democrats) as anarchists who wanted to bring the French reign of terror to America. Republicans saw the Federalists as monarchists who wanted to restore British tyranny. Hamilton, a leading Federalist, described Thomas Jefferson, a leading Republican, as a"subversive" and"dangerous" influence who was"an atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics." Jefferson, in turn, wrote that Hamilton's views"flowed from principles adverse to liberty" and were" calculated to undermine and demolish the republic."

And these were about the nicest things either one had to say about the other. Hamilton was routinely accused of embezzling federal money and being on the British payroll. Those charges weren't true, but a Republican newspaper was accurate, if indelicate, in calling him"The Adulterer," in reference to his dalliance with Maria Reynolds, which became at least as famous as the Monica Lewinsky affair....

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