Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fictional Characters

I have to say that the Republican YouTube debate last night was much more fun than any I've watched so for for either party. How lovely when you have a retired general outing himself nationally to question treatment of gays and lesbians in the military, Rudy Giuliani accusing Mitt Romney of living in a "sanctuary mansion," the resurgent Mike Huckabee claiming that Hillary Clinton should be sent on "the first rocket to Mars," and John McCain, increasingly recovering his old form, coming out strongly against the torture known as "waterboarding," jabbing away at Mitt Romney's refusal to identify it as such. "Life is not 24 and Jack Bauer," McCain said.
Exactly--but so many people, including politicians, mistake television for reality. This happened, some of you may remember, back in 1992, as George Bush fought Bill Clinton for the presidency. Vice-President J. Danforth Quayle--and how some of us miss him!--searching for an issue, hit upon the idea of going after the quite popular "Murphy Brown Show." In the show, Brown (played by actress Candace Bergen) was an anchorwoman who had decided to give birth to a child out of wedlock. Quayle thundered that bearing a child alone “mocks the importance of fathers” and was an example of the “poverty of values” that afflicted television.
This was not a smart move, since even Republicans loved to watch "Murphy Brown" and because Quayle, weirdly, was acting like this sitcom character was actually a real person. White House staffers now decided that Quayle should actually change his tune and praise Murphy Brown for her courage in having the baby (rather than, say, an abortion). Bush saved Quayle from this humiliation, and the whole situation died when, in early June, the Vice-President visited a New Jersey elementary school and corrected student William Figueroa’s spelling of “potato,” claiming it was “potatoe.”
Wrong. But this new source of ridicule for Quayle sent the Murphy Brown controversy spiraling into the old news file.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dueling Smears

The Washington Post blogged Anything for a Vote yesterday in discussing whether or not the 2008 campaign is getting dirtier. The answer is, as I've said below, yeah, a bit, we but haven't seen real mudslinging yet.
I talked later with a Christian Science Monitor reporter who mentioned the rumor that the Clinton campaign was holding back real dirt on Obama, waiting for the opportune moment to use it. This put me in mind of one of the most fascinating episodes in smear campaign history, during the election of 1940, when President Franklin Roosevelt and his Republican opponent Wendell Willkie both had great mud to throw at each other--but held back. Roosevelt had won by a landslide in 1936 over Alf Landon and was now going for an unprecedented third term, but he had stiff competition from Willkie, who was a former Democrat and a charismatic presence on the campaign trail.

The Great Republican Smear
Henry Wallace was Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture and a good one, too, but this liberal politician had a dreamy, spiritual side. To the horror of President Roosevelt’s men, just after Wallace accepted the v-p nod, Republicans passed Roosevelt’s chief of staff Harry Hopkins photostats of letters written by Wallace to a strange Russian mystic named Nicholas Roerich, whom the Secretary of Agriculture had befriended. In one note Wallace wrote: “I must read Agny Yoga and sit by myself once in a while. We are dealing with the first crude beginnings of a new age. May the peace of the Great One descend upon you.”
Another letter to Roerich talked about current events in a weird code: “The rumor is the Monkeys are seeking friendship with the Rulers so as to divide the Land of the Masters between them. The Wandering One thinks this is very suspicious of the Monkeys.”
Translation: the Japanese (the Monkeys) wanted to divide Manchuria (the Land of the Masters, which the Japanese had invaded) with the British (the Rulers). And Roosevelt (the Wandering One) didn’t like it.
Supposedly the originals of these letters were being held by the treasurer of the Republican National Committee in a bank vault. Did the Democrats want people to know that a whack job like Wallace was only a heartbeat away from the presidency? This alarmed the Democrats greatly, but oddly enough, at Wendell Willkie’s personal order, these letters were never used.

Was this because of…

The Great Democratic Smear
Roosevelt knew that the married Wendell Willkie had a mistress in New York, a writer and editor named Irita Van Doren, former wife of Carl Van Doren (uncle to Charles Van Doren of 1950s quiz show notoriety). As it turned out, Irita—whom Roosevelt referred to as “an extremely attractive little tart”—used to be the mistress of Jimmy Walker, flamboyant New York mayor. This liaison outraged Walker’s wife so much that Jimmy was forced to pay her $10,000 dollars each time she made a personal appearance with him.
Roosevelt wondered humorously to aides if Willkie’s wife had to be hired in the same fashion to smile at the press during campaign stops. Perhaps the story of Willkie’s girlfriend should be spread?
There is no direct knowledge of communications between Roosevelt and Willkie, but, interestingly enough, neither smear story became public knowledge during the campaign. Two wrongs may not make a right, but they can sometimes constitute a pair of gunslingers staring at each other down Main Street, each afraid to reach for his gun.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Not looking terribly snippy

Did you see the picture of Bush and Gore posing together in the Oval Office during the President's obligatory photo op with the Nobel Prize winners yesterday? Were there ever two more uncomfortable men?
A picture worth well over a thousand words, but I'll only provide a few. The telephone conversation below took place in the wee hours of the morning on the day after Election Day, 2000. Gore is in Nashville, Bush in Texas. Gore, if you will remember, had conceded the election to Bush when he received the erroneous information that Florida had gone to the Republican. Now he is calling to un-concede.
Gore: “Circumstances have changed dramatically. The state of Florida is too close to call.”
Bush: “Let me make sure I understand. You’re calling me back to retract that concession?”
Gore: You don’t have to be snippy about it.”
(Bush then explains that his “little brother,” Jeb Bush, Florida governor, has assured him of victory.)
Gore: “Let me explain something. Your little brother is not the ultimate authority on this.”
Bush: “You do what you have to do.”
Ah, brings it all back, doesn't?

Monday, November 26, 2007

1876 And All That

Had a great conversation on radio yesterday AM with John Rothmann of station WKGBO-AM in San Francisco. We ranged far and wide over dirty American presidential elections, devoting special time to 1800, 1824, and 1876. The latter leads my Top Ten list of nasty presidential battles and is "the most stolen" election of any of the stolen presidential contests.
The above cartoon, by the famous Harper's Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast, shows the victorious but battered GOP elephant sitting at the grave of the Democrats, bemoaning: "Another victory like this and I am undone."
In 1876, Ulysses S. Grant was hungered for a third term, but the stench of scandal and cronyism hung so heavy over his administration that Republicans finally said no mas. Instead, in their convention in Cincinnati in mid-June, they chose Rutherford B. Hayes, Governor of Ohio, who would run on a platform holding elected officials to rigid standards of probity and responsibility. No one ever claimed the 53-year-old Hayes, was the most fascinating guy in the world. But he was a former Congressman and honest-to-goodness Civil War hero (four times wounded), the happily married father of seven, and just about as hard working and sincere as a politician can get and still be a politician. His running mate would be New York Congressman William Wheeler
1876 found the Democratic Party desperate for a presidential victory—after all, they hadn’t won in 16 years—and certain they could take advantage of a Republican party weakened by the series of corruption scandals that had rocked the Grant administration. They picked as their nominee Samuel J. Tilden, Governor of New York. Tilden was the Rudy Giuliani of his age–as a crusading Manhattan DA he had smashed Boss Tweed’s powerful ring of corruption and sent the Boss himself to prison. Tilden was brilliant, but you wouldn’t want him kissing your baby. He was an icy, aloof bachelor, whose penetrating intellect made even his friends uncomfortable, and who was prone to bouts of ill health. And when wasn’t really sick, he was imagining he was—he comes down in history as a man with intense hypochondria who once saw a doctor every day for a month. To make matters worse, he had taken no part in the Civil War—in fact, he had amassed millions from his railroad and iron mines during the conflict. His v-p would be the Indianan Thomas Hendricks.
Although the candidates were still not making public appearances, their political machines were percolating. Tilden began a public relations campaign to overcome his cold fish image. Hiring editors, writers and artists, he set up a “Newspaper Popularity Bureau” whose sole purpose was to manufacture a warm, loveable Samuel J. Tilden and sell him through press releases to newspapers all over the country. As the election heated up, he created a so-called “Literary Bureau,” in which teams of writers churned out anti-Hayes material, including a 750-page book which attacked Hayes for supposedly stealing money from Confederate war dead and for being a party to Grantian scandals—“wicked schemes for peculation.”
In all honesty, though, Tilden’s dirty tricks couldn’t hold a candle to those of Zachariah Chandler, the bewhiskered, bejeweled and often besotted Republican National Chairman who was also Hayes’ campaign manager. It all began with a fundraising letter sent by Chandler to Republican appointees currently holding office: “We look to you as one of the Federal beneficiaries to help bear the burden. Two percent of your salary is___. Please remit promptly. At the close of the campaign, we shall place a list of those who have not paid in the hands of the head of the department you are now in.”
After threatening his own party members, Chandler turned on Tilden, accusing him of everything from sympathizing with slaveholders to having a scheme to pay off the Confederate debt if he took office.
Naturally, the Democrats were not idle while all of this was going on—in fact, their smear campaigns showed a great deal of creativity. They accused Hayes, a genuine Civil War hero, of literally robbing the dead—of stealing 400 dollars from a Union solder executed for desertion. (Strangely enough, Hayes actually did take the money before the man was shot, but only to pass it on to his family members—a fact Hayes was unable to prove until after the election.)
But dirty tricks doesn’t even began to describe what both parties did in the South. The Republicans–the party of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln—wanted freed blacks to vote and thus prodded many of them to the ballot boxes at gunpoint. And the Democrats, particularly in South Carolina, started violent race riots, in some cases shooting and killing blacks who attempted to exercise their franchise. On both sides, men voted ten or twenty times, and local party bosses stood by ballot boxes, tearing up any votes for the “wrong candidate.”
In the end, however, it seems incontrovertible that Tilden won the popular vote by 250,000 (out of a total of 8,320,000 votes cast). But here the Republican political machine got to work, essentially demanding that the "returning boards" (those men who tabulated the electoral votes in each state) in Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana "hold their state" for the Republican candidate. The struggle over the twenty remaining electoral votes lasted from November 8th to March 2nd, 1877. The returning boards simply threw out enough Democratic votes to swing Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina to Hayes. Democrats cried foul. Officials of both parties flocked to the South and President Grant sent Federal troops, just in case. In the end, an Electoral Commission was established, consisting of 5 U.S. Senators, 5 Congressmen, and 5 Supreme Court Justices, all of whom split evenly along party lines. With the Commission tied at 7-7, the Supreme Court Justice who had the deciding vote resigned—and a Republican justice took his place. Hayes was voted into office with 185 electoral votes to Tilden’s 184.
. In the end, fittingly enough, this dirtiest of all 19th century elections finished with a secret dirty deal. Southern Democrats promised not to contest the Election Commission’s results if Hayes, once in office, would pull Federal troops out of the South and appoint at least one Southerner to his cabinet. Reconstruction collapsed—and the future of civil rights was set back for decades—but Hayes was awarded the presidency. March 4th, 1877, was Rutherford Hayes inauguration day, but things had become so heated—someone had already fired a shot through the window of Hayes’ home—that he had to be secretly sworn in.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A lovely Turkey Day battle

Isn't it wonderful--well, I think it is, anyway--to be in the middle of an increasingly fractious presidential contest on Thanksgiving Day? To have dirty politics to entertain us as well as football. I mean, here we are, just beginning our great American electoral dinner--the food is barely set out on the table--and Obama and Hillary, napkins tucked around their necks, are really starting to duke it out. Who does she think she is, Treasury Secretary? Obama says. And what about all that secret dirt she supposedly has on me? And Hillary jabs right back, what, does Obama really think living in a foreign country at age 10 gives him a presidential perspective? While these two fight, the middle child, John Edwards, sneaks in his own digs from the other side of the table: "Now we know what Senator Clinton meant when she talked about 'throwing mud' in the last debate," his spokesman said yesterday."Like so many other things, when it comes to mud, Hillary Clinton says one thing and throws another."
And Iowa is still seven weeks away. Just think what Christmas will be like!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Thank you, Caspar

As a quick addendum to the below, its nice to see that John Edwards agrees with me re Hillary's sensitivity to some of the very mild mudslinging going on in the campaign so far. On CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday, Edwards said: "If anybody, including Sen. Clinton, thinks this is mudslinging - this is milquetoast, compared to what we're going to see next fall.''
You go, John. The Edwards campaign, if will be remembered by intrepid readers of this blog, was the only one to acknowledge receipt of Anything for a Vote. Although he just sort of generally thanked me for my "support," I have a feeling he's been dipping into it. And to use a word like "milquetoast," even if somewhat incorrectly ("milquetoast" comes from a 1920s cartoon featuring a meek and mild character named Caspar Milquetoast and is not generally used as an object) adds the crowning touch. Milquetoast? Just wait until the milquetoast really hits the fan and Hillary--and John and all the rest-- will need as much asbestos as they can get their hands on.

Asbestos and lace

Spoke with Lewis Lapham on Bloomberg Radio show The World in Time yesterday (it also went out on Sirius, XM and WorldSpace Satellite. If you missed it and have any interest, you can find it on Lapham's site (
It was nice to talk to Lewis Lapham, former Harper's editor and, since 2006, host of his weekly radio show and editor of Lapham's Quarterly. We are in agreement, I think, that people get a little too hysterical over some of the "dirty" politics currently being played as candidates jostle for position in the run-up to Iowa, New Hampshire, and Mega Tuesday. Hillary's claiming during the debate last Thursday that she needed an asbestos pantsuit to ward off attacks from her fellow Democrats is quite hilarious. She ain't seen nothing yet--that asbestos will soon have to change to chain mail. But if we're psychoanalyzing her I find it quite interesting that she felt she had to protect herself from toxic attacks with one of the most toxic substances around--I'm not talking here about pantsuits, which are pretty toxic, but asbestos. Check out for some amusing comments on this...

Friday, November 16, 2007

Does Carville really look like a Republican?

I had to laugh at the tempest in a teapot today over James Carville's commenting on CNN after last night's Democratic debate without being id'd as a former Bill Clinton advisor. Even if you didn't know this--and in fact, many people do--you'd have to live in a cave not to know that he is, at the least, a rabid Democrat. It does, however, remind me a little of Gary Will, back in 1980, who actually coached Ronald Reagan for his debate with Jimmy Carter and then went on “Nightline” the same evening, without mentioning his behind-the-scenes participation, and praised Reagan’s “thoroughbred performance.” Although he defended himself at the time, Will now says his role was “inappropriate.” (However, he did not steal Jimmy Carter's top-secret debate briefing book, which Carter as recently as a few years ago claimed Will had done. That it was stolen and given to the Reagan campaign to help the Gipper prepare is indisputable, but the culprit has yet to be convincingly identified.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Immigration, again....

Nothing like issue of illegal immigration to get people worked up. Today's NY Times poll taken with Democratic and Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire find that the topic is of serious concern to 86% of GOP'ers and 59% of Democrats, giving Iraq a nudge out of the way. Newspapers today also report that Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York will abandon his plan to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, citing strong opposition.
With Hillary's lead a bit unstable (after her own immigration wibble-wobble) and neither Mitt and Rudy pulling away to a clear cut lead in the early Iowa and New Hampshire going, illegal aliens is an issue that could be a deal-breaker for most voters.
It certainly was on October 20, 1880, as James Garfield was locked in a tight election race with Winfield Hancock. In what is probably the first recorded October Surprise, a newspaper improbably called The New York Truth printed a letter purportedly written by Garfield to an H.L. Morey of the Employers Union of Lynn, Massachusetts. In it Garfield wrote that the “Chinese problem” (i.e. the fears of whites in the West that Chinese immigrants would take jobs from them) was not a problem at all, and that employers had the right “to buy labor where they can get it the cheapest.”
This struck terror into those who had been trying to keep the Chinese out of America, particularly Californians. Garfield, who had spent mot of his campaign sidestepping this delicate issue, certainly did not write “the Morey letter,” and was very convincingly able to refute it—investigation showed that there was no Morey and no Lynn, Massachusetts, Employers Union, either. The letter was traced, in fact, to the hand of one Kenward Philp, a Truth journalist who was later arrested and indicted for fraud.
Despite the fact that Garfield was able to prove his innocence, the Morey letter hurt him. It caused him to lose California, which almost caused him to lose the close election of 1880.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Freakonomics meets Anything for a Vote

Thanks to the New York Times Freakonomics site for featuring a Q&A yesterday with yours truly concerning presidential election matters foul and fair (well, mostly foul). Had the usual trail of posted comments following the interview, some quite interesting, some just...weird, like the guy who apparently felt that Lyndon Johnson's sending a CIA agent to infiltrate Barry Goldwater's campaign and steal his policy speeches was not an egregious abuse of presidential power.
Oh well, that's what makes the world such an interesting place. And speaking of Presidential power, I have been meaning for some time to remember to place a link here to one of my favorite sites, which is
Here you can find private recordings of presidents from Roosevelt to Nixon, from back in the days when these boys were foolish enough to keep tape running while they went about their daily business. The interface on the site is great -- you can listen to Lyndon Johnson, for instance, browbeating a representative of the Haggar pants company into sending him five new pairs of pants for free, or hear JFK call up his doctor and ask for "one of those little blue pills." It was helpful in my research for Anything for a Vote. More than that, it is simply fascinating to hear our presidents, live and in person, making decisions big and small.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

One year and counting...

Welcome to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November--Election Day locally this year. It is, at least in my locale of northeastern New Jersey, a typical November election morning--grey, cool, and rainy.
After the popular vote came in in 1828, election day was up to states themselves, with balloting taking place anywhere from September to November, with results you might imagine--voting tallies leaking out, more chance to mess around with the totals. In 1845, the first national Election Day was set by Federal law. as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. It was a carefully chosen time. In America's mainly agrarian society, the harvest was finished, but winter had not yet set in and the roads were still passable. And having the day on Tuesday avoided people traveling long distances on the Sabbath. By 1880, most states had consolidated all their local senate and congressional offices on this day as well.
Well, I think I'll put on my slicker and head out and vote. Only one year from the Big Day and there is so much delicious nastiness left to come....

Monday, November 5, 2007

Lost Boys, Electric Bitters and Other Characters

While Rudy, Hillary, Mitt, Obama, John et al are certainly no slouches when it comes to possessing little foibles--there's John's 400 dollar haircut, Mitt's varmint hunting, Hillary's laugh, Rudy's hilarious recent prostate cancer ad, about as completely misleading as a political ad can be (and that's saying something).
But, being Mr. Nostalgia when it comes to the rough and tumble of American presidential campaigns, I still yearn for some of the forgotten presidential wanna-bes of old.
One of my favorites was the wonderfully named Champ Clark, Missouri Congressmen. In 1912, Champ was Democratic Speaker of the House and considered a very viable candidate for president against William Howard Taft. But Champ got it into his head to make a few extra bucks by shilling for a patent medicine company. His testimonial read, in part: "It seemed that all the organs in my body were out of order, but three bottles of Electric Bitters made me all right."
Champ became such a figure of ridicule that he was forced to drop out of the race, leaving the field clear for the far more understated Woodrow Wilson.
Another favorite perennial was turn-of-the-century Temperance candidate Silas G. Swallow. Will they ever craft a name like that again? I have also always loved Stephen Douglas, Abe Lincoln's 1860 opponent, the diminutive "Little Giant" with a stentorian voice which seems to have sounded a good deal like that of the old cereal box icon Tony the Tiger. If you think candidates today waffle on subjects like Iraq or abortion, check out this statement from Douglas on slavery: "I am for the negro against the crocodile, but for the white man against the negro." Nice. Douglas was also one of the first candidates to actually take to the campaign trail. Since it was not considered quite couth for presidential nominees to do their own shilling in those days, he hit upon the stratagem of claiming that that he was merely wending his way to upstate New York to visit his dear old mother, and paying a few visits to friends along the way. This caused gleeful Republicans to put out a "Lost Boy" poster: "Left Washington D.C. some time ago to go home to his mother., who is very anxious about him...last seen at a clambake in Rhode Island. Answers to the name of Little Giant. Talks a great deal, always very loud, always about himself."