In 1800, Thomas Jefferson endured a presidential campaign in which supporters of his opponent, President John Adams, labored mightily to convince the public that the then-vice president was an atheistic coward hell-bent on ripping Bibles from the homes of God-fearing Americans. A Jeffersonian writer, in turn, called Adams a "hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and the firmness of a man nor the gentleness or sensibility of a woman."
In later campaigns, Andrew Jackson’s wife was referred to as a woman of the night, and Abraham Lincoln was characterized as a baboon in as many creative ways as the opposition could imagine. When Al Smith, a Catholic, campaigned across the country in 1928, his train was met in certain parts by flaming crosses, courtesy of the Ku Klux Klan.
Those examples tell us a couple of things: Dirty tricks in U.S. politics are as old as the republic, and politics ain’t a Sunday tea party.
Elections in this country are marked by a vigorous, often coarse dialogue, and that has always been the case. So just how much soil did the dirt of 2008 leave on John McCain and Barack Obama compared with other recent presidential nominees?
During the 1988 campaign, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was portrayed as an enemy of the American flag and a friend of convicted rapist and murderer Willie Horton. President Reagan even suggested offhandedly that he might be mentally unstable. George H.W. Bush’s turn to defend against mud in ‘88 came after a rumor accused him of engaging in an affair with an aide. No one produced a shred of evidence to support the charge, and a Dukakis staffer resigned for promoting the rumor. The "affair" was rehashed during Bush’s 1992 race against Bill Clinton. Democrats needed an antidote to rumors of Clinton’s extramarital behavior.
Clinton was a magnet for negative claims, extramarital activity being but one example. There were persistent rumors that he tried to renounce his U.S. citizenship to escape the draft (false) and engaged in unpatriotic activities during a student trip to the Soviet Union (false).
The 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against John Kerry, saying that he lied to get Vietnam medals, was refuted. But the campaign was political jujitsu, taking Kerry’s greatest strength -- an honorable record of service -- and turning it into a major liability.
George W. Bush found his own war record questioned in 2004 when CBS News ran an expose questioning his 1970s service in the Air National Guard. The documents undergirding the story were later judged to be forgeries fed to the network as a means of discrediting the president.
How does 2008 compare? The Internet has made the spreading of dirty tricks viral. It is easier than ever to initiate a dirty trick, and to do it anonymously. I have been astounded by the number of people I encountered who believed Obama was a secret Muslim who took his senatorial oath of office on a Quran, was the antichrist or was not really a U.S. citizen -- all false claims. One group sent out an e-mail titled, "Life as We Know It Will End If Obama is Elected," with the charge that in an Obama administration, "People who hate Christianity will be emboldened to attack our freedoms." It makes little difference that Obama belongs to the United Church of Christ.
These charges originated with outside groups, but the McCain campaign itself splattered some mud. Sarah Palin’s phrase "palling around with terrorists" won’t be soon forgotten. The McCain camp’s focus on William Ayers -- a man who spent a decade as a fugitive for his involvement in the violent Weather Underground -- had little effect, but the over-the-top robocalls hammering Obama for his tangential relationship with "the domestic terrorist" Ayers were memorably distasteful. The terrorist reference was incendiary and insidious, seeking to reinforce the baseless rumors that Obama was Muslim and somehow anti-American.
And a ridiculous McCain ad accused Obama of wanting kindergartners to have sex education "before learning to read." The bill supported by Obama in the Illinois Legislature was actually designed to protect children from sexual predation.
McCain was subjected to plenty of harsh attacks too. He faced wild charges from Obama supporters (although not the campaign itself) that he is a real-life Manchurian candidate (brainwashed by the North Vietnamese) and untrue claims that he showed cowardice during a devastating fire on the aircraft carrier Forrestal in 1967. Obama’s campaign was responsible for a snarky ad called "Computer," which all but said McCain was too old to be president, as though up-to-date computer skills had anything to do with the judgment needed for the Oval Office.
Another Obama ad lifted two inflammatory statements about immigrants made by Rush Limbaugh ("Stupid and unskilled Mexicans" and "You shut your mouth or you get out!") and linked them to McCain.
If we listed all the outrageous exaggerations and untruths uttered in ads and on the trail in 2008, this report would be the length of "War and Peace." Most fair-minded observers would call this fall’s campaign one of the more irresponsibly negative, rumor-filled presidential seasons the nation has ever seen. Neither of the campaigns nor the media have had clean hands, although unquestionably Obama was subjected to the more pervasive series of damaging lies.
Shouldn’t we be laboring to construct a legislated code of ethics to end dirty tricks once and for all? Maybe in Utopia. Until someone can write a law that modifies basic human nature, it will be impossible to stop these practices. At election time, the stakes are too high, the emotions run too deep. And, in the Internet age it will be increasingly difficult to root out the perpetrators.
So by all means, we should condemn dirty tricks. But in a democracy, rough-hewn campaigning is a substitute for the more vicious means of change practiced in totalitarian regimes, including the coup d’etat and street riots.
For humankind, a sobriquet such as "hideous hermaphroditical character" actually might be progress.
Larry Sabato directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.