Thursday, November 6, 2008

Say Goodnight, John

Well, there were a lot of sweaty palms in my Democratic-minded New Jersey town, but Obama, in the end, carried it off, putting a fitting and dramatic capper on this most dramatic of election seasons. I ended up, Election Night, at a party where most present were drinking the odd concoction of ginger beer and rum, causing numerous sugary hangovers the next day, no doubt, but also leading to high spirits. Each time the CNN would call a state for Obama, applause broke out, and occasionally someone would run outside, shouting at the top of his or her lungs.
I voted for Hillary in the primaries, but over the summer and fall became impressed by the way Obama handled himself as John McCain's minions got more and more vicious in their attacks on him. My Ten Dirtiest Elections list (below) now officially includes 2008, entering in position number 10, having just pushed out the election of 1828 between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. 2008 managed to pull of this come-from-behind act due mainly to McCain's post Convention campaign commercials, which continually posed the question "Who is Barack Obama?" and answering by claiming he was a terrorist-supporter, a Muslim, a socialist--essentially, an alien. I thought it was interesting when people spoke about how honorable McCain's concession speech was. I do think the guy is personally a decent man, but you can't really run a campaign in which you use vicious slurs against your opponent and not have to take some responsibility for it. These things stick. A friend of mind, out canvassing for the Democrats in Columbus, Ohio, on Election Day, ran into a McCain supporter who claimed to believe that Obama, if he won, would insist on being sworn in with a Koran. My friend did not argue with him, overlong, because the man was holding a shovel, but it shows you what I've been saying all year--that smears glom on to the susceptible like glops of napalm jelly, and burn, burn, burn.
It is with sadness that I say farewell to the Election of 2008. Looking way back to the primaries, who can forget Mick Huckabee and his dog-torturing son, Mitt "the Mutt" Romney. John Edwards Whose Name Is Forever Mud, Bill Clinton's intemperance, Hillary's New Hampshire tears, and so much more. I want to thank everyone who bought a copy of Anything for a Vote or attended one of my talks, or emailed with questions and sometimes sharp commentary. I plan on updating the book for 2012 and something tells me that new 2008 chapter will run quite long.
I can't wait to write it.

Top Ten Dirtiest American Presidential Campaigns of All Time

10) 2008: Barack Obama vs. John McCain
There’s nothing like a black man with the middle name “Hussein” running for president to get the Republican base stirred up. Assaults on Obama included calling him a socialist, a terrorist, a Muslim, and even a Jew-hater (flyers in Florida claimed that a Holocaust in Israel would ensue if he was elected). In the meantime, Republicans attempted to “purify” voter rolls of misspelled names and wrong addresses, though Democrats suspected it was an attempt to knock off minority voters. In the end, nothing worked and Obama won a historic victory with the highest percentage of voters weighing in since 1964.

9) 1960: John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon
The charismatic young Kennedy, backed by his father’s big bucks and a political organization that would stop at nothing, may have stolen this extremely close contest by manipulating the vote in Illinois and Texas.

8) 1928: Herbert Hoover vs. Al Smith
After reading about this election, most people want to take a good shower. The Republican party of the stiff-collared candidate of Middle America, Herbert Hoover, destroyed Governor Al Smith of New York by slurring his Catholic religion in every way possible. As if that wasn’t enough, they went after his wife, too.

7) 2004: George W. Bush vs. John Kerry
Extremely dirty, and possibly pilfered, the 2004 election featured attacks on Democratic candidate Kerry’s Vietnam war service, which were as scurrilous as they were effective. Republican operatives may have stolen the vote in Ohio, putting incumbent George Bush back in office for another four years.

6) 1988: George H. W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis
Although 1988 did not feature a stolen election—no way, even in the most honest of contests, would Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis have beaten President George H. W. Bush—it is probably one of the sleaziest and most racist on record. Dukakis was ridiculed in Republican attack ads as a wimp who had allowed a black criminal on weekend furlough to go on a rampage of rape and violence.

5) 1972: Richard Nixon vs. George McGovern
The Republican incumbent Nixon brought out all the heavy guns here—dirty tricks to sow divisiveness among Democratic incumbents in the primaries, race-baiting, IRS intimidation of Democratic bigwigs, the Enemies List, press manipulation, and, of course, the Watergate burglary by the Special Investigations Unit, aka “the Plumbers.”

4) 1800: Thomas Jefferson vs. John Adams
Way back in only the third election ever held in this country, Thomas Jefferson of the Republicans and John Adams of the Federalists went at it tooth and nail, with Republicans hiring

hack writers to attack the incumbent Adams as a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” whatever
that means, and Federalists claiming that Jefferson slept with slaves. The close election was
thrown into the House of Representatives, where Jefferson almost certainly made a secret deal to win it.

3) 2000: George W. Bush vs. Al Gore
Surprisingly, not the low-down dirtiest election on record, but pretty bad, with Republicans acting in a truly narrow, partisan fashion at every stage to subvert the democratic process and hand victory to George W. Bush.

2) 1964: Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater
Not as well known as Nixon’s 1972 dirty tricks election, Johnson’s 1964 win over Goldwater featured the cynical manufacturing of anti-Goldwater stories planted with gullible reporters; children’s coloring books portraying Goldwater as a Klansman; CIA invasion of Goldwater’s campaign; and FBI bugging of Goldwater’s campaign plane.

1) 1876: Rutherford Hayes vs. Samuel Tilden
This is the granddaddy of them all: a truly stolen election in which Republicans turned defeat into victory for Rutherford Hayes by counting Democratic votes as their own in three Southern states. Both parties used violence to intimidate former black slaves for their votes. And not to mention that Republicans extorted 2% of the salaries of Federal employees to aid in their campaign efforts, or that Democrats accused Hayes of shooting his mother and robbing the dead, or that Republicans claimed that Samuel Tilden suffered from a venereal disease.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day notes

Tuesday, November 4, dawned warm and grey-ish here in New Jersey, but now (1 pm) we have a little quiet sun filtering down. Last night my daughter Carson had a sleepover here with her friend Emma (both girls are 9) and the whispering and giggling went on until after midnight. My wife and I rose groggily at 6 AM--of course, the girls were already awake. No school today, so the plan was for my wife to vote, then head into NYC to work while I took the girls with me to vote. Emma's mother and father are German and Irish citizens, respectively, so Emma hasn't been with them to American polling places and wanted to see how voting works for a school report.
My wife came back after over an hour (the elementary school we vote in is just around the corner), late for work and harried. Took a long time because the one voting machine allotted to our district was down--first time this has happened in ten years--and so they had to do paper ballots. Then they ran out of paper ballots and confusion ensued until it was determined voters could use another districts paper ballots (although not another district's voting machines).
I drove my wife to the train station and she asked me why Tuesday is the appointed election day. Started in 1845, I said. The first Tuesday after the first Monday in November was picked because it was a period when crops were in, but the really bad winter weather hadn't started. And voting on Tuesday generally meant you wouldn't have to travel on the Sabbath to get to your polling place.
Took the girls out to breakfast at our local diner. Quite crowded and much buzzing excitement. CNN in the background, showing Obama voting, along with his daughters. His machine (of the optical scanner variety) wasn't broken, but it took him quite a long time to fill in his ballot. Emma, who is running for Student Council vice-president at her and Carson's elementary school, asked me if Obama could vote for himself. I said not only could, but certainly did, at which point she looked quite thoughtful.
Then it was off to the polls, where, judging from what I had been hearing, I expected long lines. But actually not bad. The district 19 voting machine was not yet working--they were expecting a technician momentarily--so we had to fill out paper ballots. This was a bit disappointing to me -- I like the rush of pushing buttons behind curtains--but Emma and Carson helped me darken the appropriate circles with pencil, and off we went. Total time: 20 minutes.
Tonight...two different election parties and then we all collapse. More later.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Trick or Treat!

Well, it has at last arrived, ladies and gerts, Election Day eve. Following so close upon Halloween, and having its own contingent of dirty tricks, Election Day always reminds me of that spookiest of holidays. Down the street from me in my little and solidly Democratic New Jersey town, a woman has planted several "Democrats for McCain" signs (huh?) on her front lawn, only to see them repeatedly torn down, just one local sign of election nastiness. I see that today she has planted another sign with a smiley face telling sign vandals to "smile" because she has installed a hidden camera which will catch them in the act.
Of course, it is doubtful that someone with a hidden camera would actually tell people she had one, but I appreciate the effort it takes to be a McCain supporter in an Obama town. Our children are so indoctrinated my daughter refused to "Trick or treat" at a home with a McCain/Palin sign (of course by that time she was quite satiated with candy) and her elementary school straw vote was 336 Obama, 11 McCain. But in other parts of the country where the race is a lot closer, there will be lots of tricks going on--and quite dirty ones. This election, which started out in relatively tame fashion, has now broken into my Top Ten Dirtiest American Presidential Elections list, mainly on the strength of the Republican attacks on Barack Obama over the last few weeks. While Obama contents himself with simply misrepresenting some of McCain's ideas and programs, McCain is going in for character assassination on a scale we haven't seen since Lee Atwater's "Willie Horton" attacks on Michael Dukakis in 1988. Obama is a socialist, Obama is alien, Obama is a stranger--Obama will create a "new Holocaust" for Jews (as one Florida flyer put it recently) if elected.
Most polls right now have the Democratic candidate seven points up, but anyone who has followed American elections knows that tomorrow, as ghosts and spirits walk abroad across the electoral landscape, anything can happen.
Stay tuned.....

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Great Wheat

Well, Obama's half an hour last night was not as excruciating as it could have been. Definitely slick and well-produced and it gathered power along the way, although I am inherently suspicious of any political ad which begins with waving fields of wheat. I mean, is there not another symbol for the Republic than this one? And, as with many large-scale Obama productions, there is an odd sense of grandeur not, quite, befitting a Democratic candidate.
However, one will take grandeur, even pomp, over much of the muck being thrown around out there in these last days before the election. I have not seen the likes of it since the 1960s, when violent-minded conservative crowds assailed war protesters and liberal Democrats as unpatriotic Commies. It's both breathtaking and dangerous, but I think we may now be experiencing an earthquake: those haters out there yelling slogans, instigated by some of the nastiest Republican campaign rhetoric since 1988, are not the Silent Majority, but the Vocal Minority. The Silent Majority are voting and it looks like they're not going to vote for McCain.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Back off the Road

And what a long, strange trip it's been, talking at the country's colleges about dirty tricks in American politics. From Auburn to Iowa, from Massachusetts to Wyoming, with a slide show full of campaign commercials (such as the ones Errol Morris is talking about in his informative NY Times piece today) and a desire to show people that today's election is nothing compared to what was going on way back in the distant past, such as 1988!
Flashes from the road--the Libertarian party student at Virginia Tech who set up his table full of brochures which looked like they had been printed up in the 1980s...and who wanted to go back to the old pre-1800 system of voting, except expand it to the masses, two votes per voter, one for pres, one for vice-pres. No political parties. "Wouldn't it be nice to get two people with different views into the White House?" Uh, no....
Then there were the two black women in Alabama who came up to me and warned me that my criticism of the KKK (in the Al Smith election of 1928) might stir things up. "You have to be careful how you mention the Klan around here," they said, laughing a little and shaking their heads.
Then there was getting stuck in beautiful Laramie Wyoming airport for five hours, causing me to miss my talk at Columbus State College, in Ohio, which I was really looking forward to (sorry about that, Columbus State). If you get stuck in an airport, Laramie, more of a landing strip than an actual airport, is not the one to get stuck in. But the University of Wyoming was great. Watched the last debate ("Joe the Plumber") in a student bar there with great burgers and lots of focus on what was being said. In fact, everywhere I went, kids were really into the election. There was a good deal of indignation over the current series of McCain attack ads, although at the same time, there were doubts about Obama and his lack of experience.....
Back here in my solidly Democratic town in my solidly Democratic state of New Jersey, Obama signs sprout everywhere, far more than there were Kerry signs in 2004. The Democrats, sensing victory, are pushing ahead everywhere. The campaign is getting dirtier and now may crack my top ten dirtiest elections--I will decide after election day. It isn't just the outlandish McCain attacks on Obama (next they'll be calling him Leon Trotsky) but real concerns about the amount of fighting already going on about voter registration lists, with Republicans mounting challenge after challenge to knock most Democratic voters from the rolls for technical reasons. Then there's ACORN, which has really smeared Democratic get out the vote efforts. And everywhere I went, people are afraid that by some political skullduggery there computerized votes won't count....or that there will be Florida/2000-like confusion if they are voting in a close state.
More tomorrow. I am a somewhat amazed at the Obama campaign plans to go ahead and air his 30 minute long campaign infomercial tomorrow night. In my talk, I warn against 30 minutes worth of presidential candidate talking time, citing how badly it failed for Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Naturally, Obama won't just be a talking head like Stevenson was --plenty of video and images--but this kind of thing can backfire, especially if one already considers the Obama campaign (remember the awful "seal" and the strange Grecian columns at the convention?) a tad pompous....

Saturday, October 4, 2008

On the Road

Back now from Springfield, Ohio, and Covington, Kentucky, where I spoke at Wittenberg College and University of Northern Kentucky, respectively. The students and faculty at both places were great (thanks to Nate, Maureen, Casey, Alex and Josh) as were the community members who turned out to see the slide show and hear the talk.
I did not hear rabid expressions of allegiance to either party, interestingly. People are engaged by this election, but also somewhat puzzled and stunned, waiting, like the rest of us, to see what twist or turn it's going to take next. I was traveling in the midst of the bailout debate in Congress, with the ubiquitous newspaper of the road-weary, USA Today (free on motel check-in counters) blaring out 777 point market drops and Congressional cat-fighting. People I talked to were alarmed, but not yet panicked. Still, many (especially in Kentucky,surprisingly) told me they weren't sure just who they were going to vote for and might now decide until they walked into a polling booth.
A few miscellaneous items:
Karl Rove was coming to speak at Northern Kentucky after me--I offered to stay around and debate him, but they ushered me gently out.
Should anyone want a surreal road experience, please stay in the Drawbridge Inn in Covington, KY. it's a huge, sprawling place with a medieval theme--the Crossbow Inn, Friar Tuck Hall, etc. While I was there three different conventions were going on. There was a Church of God group, lots of kids wandering around in homespun, a reunion of crew members of a Vietnam-era aircraft carrier, and a dog show. God, war, and canines--can one ask for anything more?
Next week's schedule:
Monday: Middlesex College in Bedford, MA, for a lunch talk, then down the road to UMass Boston for an evening speech.
Wednesday: University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho, Sarah Palin's alma mater
Friday: Auburn University, Montgomery, Alabama
See you there...

Friday, September 26, 2008

Interesting Time

The Chinese curse about living in interesting times is indeed pretty apropos right now. With the largest financial institutions crumbling around our ears, we have the sight of one presidential candidate heading to Washington to attempt to alleviate the crisis--or so he says--and another reluctantly trailing along. The first debate between John McCain and Barack Obama is scheduled for tonight, but John McCain may not show up if a bailout agreement has not been reached. And at this writing, early Friday AM, conservative Republicans are fighting the government's 700 billion dollar package as "socialism."
Well....there are few parallels for this in American electoral history. One things of Herbert Hoover and his horrendous presidential campaign in 1932, as the Great Depression sunk deeply in, when crowds followed him shouting "We want bread!" But Hoover was the incumbent. John McCain has unilaterally "suspended campaigning"--of course, he is politicking vigorously--and the last time that happened during a presidential contest was after Teddy Roosevelt was shot in 1912.
McCain's stance at this point only highlights what a wild card he is--this is a huge gamble on his part, as was his choice of Sarah Palin (whose dreadful interview with Katie Couric is making the rounds of the Internet). Unless he can show he is actually helping the country make progress in this crisis, his involvement here will be seen as grandstanding. Barack Obama, for his part, seems to be attempting to take the calmer, higher road, but once again, he risks appearing uninvolved or unengaged.
Tomorrow I will provide omments on the Ole Miss debate, if it happens. It is certainly one I think no political junkie will want to miss. The topic is supposed to be foreign affairs, but the economy--more and more seeming like a foreign affair--will certainly come to the fore.
In the meantime, I am doing quite a bit of traveling this month, talking at colleges on Anything for a Vote and elections present and past. Below is a list of my appearances. They are open to the public, so if you live near a school in question, check their website for details and come on by.

Wittenburg University, Ohio- Sept. 29
Northern Kentucky KT– Sept 30
Middlesex and UMASS/Boston - October 6th...
University of Idaho-October 8
Auburn University/Montgomery – October 10th
University of Wyoming-October 15
Columbus State Community College (OH) - October 16th
Virginia Tech- October 20
Hofstra University – October 23rd

Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace

I want to take a moment from campaign goings-on to comment on the tragically early death of the writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide on Friday on California, at the age of 46. Foster was a brilliant writer whose novels ("Infinite Jest" and "The Broom of the System") and collections of short stories and reportage were manic, multi-layered looks at contemporary society. Wallace was apparently deeply depressed. To show how politics never quite leaves us this election year, several commentators on Michiko Kakutani's appraisal of Wallace on the NY Times website claimed, not at all facetiously, that it was probably Sarah Palin's choice as vice-president which put Wallace over the edge. Poor taste, but somewhat understandable, since this was a writer who understood the bleak absurdity to be found in America's ability to turn anything into a brand, even a vice-presidential candidate.
Way back in 1989, as a copywriter at the Quality Paperback Book Club, I met Wallace when he was awarded QPB's "New Voices" Award for his story collection "The Girl With Curious Hair." He was so shy about receiving the $5,000 check that the editorial director had to present it to him in private. He did come to the luncheon. He was a rumple-haired young man with his arm in a sling from some mishap, and very reticent, but with a disarmingly sweet smile. In those days we had a lot of writers coming through for lunches at the book club, and many of them, from days of being on tour and answering interview questions, had become rather slick. But Foster seemed overwhelmed even by the attention paid to him by our little group of book club employees, so I can see how later acclaim may have been hard for him to handle. It's hard to hear of his death, however, because it's rare when you get such talent combined with such genuine humility.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Obama, Adlai and Reality

One of Barack Obama's worst tendencies, if you're a Democrat in this election season, is to turn into Adlai Stevenson, the two-time failed Democrat candidate for president in the 1950s. Stevenson, Illinois governor, was brilliant, cool, subtly ironic, wonkish, and cared deeply--and he got his ass handed to him on a platter twice by Dwight Eisenhower, the man of whom Claire Booth Luce gushingly said: "General Eisenhower exemplifies what the fair sex looks for in a man—a combination of husband, father and son!”
Not that John McCain is any Dwight Eisenhower, but when you put the two current candidates up next to each other, some of Obama's weaknesses as a campaigner, especially his inability to shout really loud, make themselves evident. The shouting factor has become even more important since McCain has chosen Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, whom many people love because she and her family remind them of characters on one of the long-running reality shows so popular today. They're all so easy to tag: The Special Needs Child, the Soldier, the Pregnant Teen (and Hunky Boyfriend), the Snowmobiler Husband, and, of course, the Pit Bull With Lipstick. Whereas Obama and Michelle's reality show would appear on PBS, early Sunday mornings....
Democrats can take heart, though. Obama sees the need to step it up a bit and yesterday wonderfully said that "you can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig." He said he was referring to John McCain, but we all know better and, up to this writing, he has refused to apologize.
A Dutch friend of mine who lives in this country and follows American politics closely asked me somewhat plaintively at the close of the Republican convention if all American presidential contests included such personal attacks and name-calling as we had just seen. Didn't candidates just talk about the issues? I was astonished, as if he had asked me whether fish need to swim in water. How do I respond? Since almost the very beginning--let's say since 1800--name-calling has been the premiere way to address the issues. It has always been personalities as a way into politics, in our reality show challenged Republic. Once we get a tag for everyone--from that "tall, skinny wretch" Abraham Lincoln to the "Bull Moose" Teddy Roosevelt to "Tricky Dick" Nixon, we start listening.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ah, Vice-Presidential picks

...don't you love 'em? They really do so little--Sarah Palin was right to wonder last July just what the heck the office is all about--yet in campaigns they cause so much trouble. Even John Adams, our first vice-president, spent much of his time grumbling that he got no respect. And our second vice-president, Thomas Jefferson, spent most of his time undermining President John Adams.
Democrats should take care not to crow too much over Palin's family troubles, since backlash is a wonderful thing in America. But one cannot help but be reminded of George H.W. Bush's veep pick in 1988, Dan Quayle. Building on fears that vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle was not qualified to be president, the Democrats ran an ad with grainy footage of vice-presidents like Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president. The overvoice intoned: “One out of five American vice-presidents has to rise to the duties of commander-in-chief. After five months of reflection, Bush’s choice: J. Danforth Quayle. Hopefully, we’ll never know how great a lapse of judgment that really was.” The soundtrack was an ominously thumping heartbeat.
Quayle's worst damage however was in Bush's 1992 contest against Bill Clinton. Searching for an issue, he picked the lack of “family values” in entertainment. The music of rapper Tupac Shakur, for instance, had “no place in our society,” according to Quayle. Shakur was a relatively easy target, but then the V-P made the mistake of going after the phenomenally popular television show Murphy Brown. 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.”
One of my favorite vice-presidential stories seems to sum it all up. President William Howard Taft’s running mate in 1912 was his vice-president, James Sherman, who however died on October 30, just before Election Day. Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler agreed to replace him—but only, as he told Taft, on the condition that Taft not win. Taft solemnly assured him that he would not, and indeed he lost handily to Woodrow Wilson.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Welcome to Whackyville

Well, who said there wouldn't be any surprises in store for us, this convention season? (I guess me, below). Certainly John McCain's pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for veep is just what the (witch) doctor ordered to perk up this unusually dull presidential race. Although Hurricane Gustav heading, with just the right touch of apocaplyse, up the Gulf Coast as I write this, has also stirred things up. (Looks like the worst has missed New Orleans, but it is truly amusing to watch Republicans scramble to look appropriately solemn as they "curtail" their convention activities and also breathe a sigh of relief that Bush and Cheney have now found other things to do.)
But back to Palin. Since Friday people have been asking me if this was an inspired or dumb choice and the answer actually is both. She will energize that conservative base and possibly bring in some voters who just want to see a little sorely needed pizazz in McCain's operations, a little juice and life. She will re-establish, to some extent, his maverick credentials. But if this turns out to be a close race, which I think it will be, she has got to have a lot of people thinking, Christ, this inexperienced person is far too close to the presidency.
Palin, of course, has given joy to liberal pundits. Maureen Dowd has written her usual snarky column , replete with mooseburger jokes. Nastier have been the rumors flying around that Palin's young son with Down Syndrome actually belongs to her seventeen year old daughter, Bristol, that the good Governor faked her own pregnancy to cover up for her. Like any smear, this has a tiny kernel of truth--turns out Bristol is pregnant, as Palin's office announced today.
A McCain staffer (anonymously) said this about the rumor: "The despicable rumors that have been spread by liberal blogs, some even with Barack Obama's name in them, is a real anchor around the Democratic ticket, pulling them down in the mud in a way that certainly juxtaposes themselves against their 'campaign of change."
We'll ignore the difficulties with subject-verb tense agreement, this puzzling problem of having Obama's name "in" the blogs, and the exotic use of "juxtaposes"--it has been a bit of an overexciting time for the sleepy McCain campaign. But the statement is very amusing, coming from a member of a party that pushed as hard as it could to convince people Obama was a dangerous Muslim radical.
Will the American people want a White House that looks like a reality show? Pregnant teenagers, guys with guns, ladies with skinning knives, snowmobiles on the front lawn? Dammit, they just might.....Ladies and gents, we may just have ourselves a campaign, after all.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Matt Lauer led off the "Today Show" this AM agreeing solemnly with Meredith Vieira that, despite rumors to the contrary, there were surprises to be had at the Democratic National Convention. Turned out by surprises he meant Ted Kennedy's "dramatic" appearance, which of course could be seen coming from a mile away by everyone but, apparently, "Today's" hosts. A surprise is defined as "something nobody expects to happen," and while there were plenty of surprises in conventions past, there are few these days. I will of course eat my words if Hillary hijacks the convention and grabs the nomination, but something tells me there will be no sentence-chewing for me.
For another in my series on great convention past, let's try the Republican funfest of 1912.

In 1912, with the exception of Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms, Republican Party candidates had occupied the White House since 1860—an astonishing 44 years. But things were about to change in an especially acrimonious election that saw the Republican Party tear itself apart.
After William Howard Taft’s 1908 victory, former president Teddy Roosevelt congratulated his old vice-president on his victory and headed off to Africa for big-game hunting—the ex-President was personally responsible for killing nine lions, eight elephants, twenty zebras, seven giraffes and six buffalo. Back home, progressive Republicans had a different kind of big game in their sights: Taft, who, naturally more conservative than Roosevelt, had begun to swing back in the direction of tariffs and right-wing Republican bosses. The progressives complained that, despite his promises to the contrary when elected, he was selling out the Party to big business interests and tariffs. Taft in turn whined in a letter to Roosevelt: “It is now a year and three months since I assumed office and I have had a hard time….”
But his former mentor was not the person in whom to confide. As soon as Roosevelt returned home in 1910, he was besieged by progressive Republicans trying to convince him to run for a second full term. It didn’t take much persuasion. Roosevelt began to criticize Taft’s policies claiming that he was a pawn of “the bosses and…the great privileged interests.” Taken aback by the violence of the attack from a former friend, Taft confided to an aide: “If only I knew what the President [he continued to call Roosevelt “the President”] wanted, I would do it.”
What Roosevelt wanted became very clear in February of 1912, when he declared his candidacy for his party’s nomination for president. “My hat is in the ring!” he roared (actually coining that phrase). He also said: “The fight is on and I am stripped to the buff!”
Taft, taking up the Roosevelt’s boxing analogy, came out swinging—well, sort of, in his own, really strange, confessional way:
”I do not want to fight Theodore Roosevelt but sometimes a man in a corner comes out swinging,” the President said. “I was a man of straw but I have been a man of straw long enough. Every man who has blood in his body…is forced to fight.”
By 1912, some states had begun holding primary elections to pick their delegates, a fairly pro forma procedure until now. In what can be considered the first ever contested presidential party primaries, Roosevelt proceeded to kick Taft’s ass, nine states to one. Roosevelt even won in Taft’s home state of Ohio. But things happened very differently at the Republican convention in Chicago in June.
It may be hard for us today, in an age of carefully-orchestrated national political conventions, to understand the mayhem that went on. The very fact that Roosevelt showed up on the first day of the convention wearing a sombrero, smoking a cigar, and referring to the sitting President as “a rat in a corner” shows you how many light years 1912 is away from 2008.
But the real action happened behind the scenes. The delegates Roosevelt won in the primary elections were in the minority—Taft’s conservative political bosses controlled the Republican National Committee and made a point of lining up Taft delegates from non-primary states. In back room wheeling and dealing, they also purchased the support of as many as 200 to 300 delegates from southern states—these states would vote Democratic in a national election, but they did have Republican delegates for sale.
Roosevelt and his men made challenge after challenge when Taft’s men tried to seat these delegates; but their challenges were denied, so much so that progressives began to cry that they were being “steamrolled” (also a new coinage in 1912). Tensions ran so high that police squads were brought in and barbed wire put around the stage. Finally, when Taft ended up with a commanding lead in delegates, 561 to Roosevelt’s 107, Roosevelt and his supporters stormed out of the convention. They formed their own independent party made up of everyone from social workers, reformers and feminists to unhappy mainstream Republicans. They called themselves the Progressive Party but were known popularly as the Bull Moose Party because Roosevelt had proclaimed: “I am fit as a bull moose!”
Thus, the most successful political party of the last half century had managed to split themselves in two, not a recipe for victory, since simple arithmetic at the time showed that Democrats had about 45% of the national vote locked up already. As one onlooker said, referring to Taft and Roosevelt, “the only question is, which corpse gets the flowers?”

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dreaming on

The other day's description of my little dream conversation with Obama and George Bush brought other dream sequences out of the woodwork. One friend claimed that John McCain approached him on the street and insisted he touch his skin cancer surgery scars. My friend declined. Another emailed me a startling dream he had, in which he was watching the Democratic National Convention, Hillary and Bill both on the stage together, and Hillary pulls out a gun and shoots Bill for sucking up all the attention. My friend said the networks replayed the shooting in all kinds of slow motion and different angles, as if it was an Olympic event, but nobody seemed really shocked, just fascinated.
Here is yet another rockin' convention, from 1880.
After he was elected in the contentious contest of 1876, Rutherford Hayes led America into the very heart of what Mark Twain dubbed “the Gilded Age.” A huge economic expansion was led by a few robber barons (er, industrialists) like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, John Jacob Astor, Jay Gould, and Cyrus W. Field, but while the rich were getting very rich indeed, the poor got poorer, the disenfranchised more disenfranchised. As America surged towards the twentieth century, the country faced pressing issues—the need for child labor laws, the lack of an eight-hour work day, the plight of blacks, the rights of women, the idea of a graduated federal income tax, just to name a few. Yet the two major parties were still fighting the Civil War, a decade and a half after it ended. Like punch-drunk fighters who do not know the bell has rung, the two parties “waved the bloody shirt” and ran two heroic generals against each other for the Presidency.
Although contemporary historian Henry Adams called him “a third-rate nonentity,” Hayes had not been a bad president. He was personally honest and had attempted, although with little success, to reform the highly corrupt, patronage-ridden Civil Service. But he was hamstrung by the promises he had had to make to Democrats in order to win in 1876. Hayes’s fellow Republicans saw their President withdrawing troops from the South (troops which supported corrupt Republican carpetbag state governments), giving important positions to Southern Democrats and approving money for Southern pork barrels, all as a result of 1876. And they didn’t like it.
Hayes wisely decided not to run for a second term, which set the stage for an internal Republican Party battle which has seldom been equaled in American political history. The party was divided into two wings. One was called the Stalwarts, meaning those loyal to the old-line party of General Ulysses S. Grant, who was fishing for a third term as President. The other was dubbed the Half-Breeds—moderates who wanted reform within the party and abhorred the thought of another four years of “Grantism”—i.e., the General’s corrupt cronies dipping into the public trough at will.
As the Republican Convention met in the brand-new glass and iron Exposition Building on June 2, 1880 in Chicago, Roscoe Conkling, the powerful and vain U.S. Senator from New York, thought he had votes locked up for General Grant, who had been out of the country on a two and a half year long world tour, long enough for people to forget the scandals of his administration and look upon the gruff General with nostalgic fondness. The Half-Breeds were led by Maine Senator James G. Blaine, Conkling’s sworn enemy (who had unforgettably once called Conkling “a majestic, supereminent, overpowering, turkey-gobbler strut.”).
It was personal between these two, but the fate of the party was at stake—as well as that of the nation, since most assumed the Republicans would win the White House, as they had done since 1856. (One reason why Thomas Nast had just caricaturized the Republican Party as a stolid, dependable elephant—an image which stuck.) Thousands crammed the convention halls as ballot after ballot between the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds was cast. Spontaneous demonstrations arose during the alphabetized roll calls, either for Grant or for Blaine himself for President. One woman spectator climbed a “Goddess of Liberty Statue” on the convention stage and began ripping off her clothes; she had to be pulled down and restrained.
Conkling put Grant in nomination with a fiery speech culminating in a sappy poem:

When asked what state he hails from
Out sole reply shall be:
He hails from Appomattox
And its famous apple tree.

But a new Senator from Ohio, James G. Garfield arose and nominated fellow Ohioan Treasury Secretary John Sherman, brother of William Tecumseh Sherman, a favorite of the Half-Breeds although not of the public at large, for reasons that are evident in his nickname: The Ohio Icicle. But as ballot after ballot was taken, an extraordinary thing began to happen: more and more delegates began to vote for Garfield himself, swayed by the idea of Garfield as a moderating force between the two sharply-divided factions. After 36 ballots—the most ever cast at a Republican convention, before or since—the 48-year-old Garfield became the dark horse Republican candidate for President. As a sop to the Roscoe Conkling , Chester Arthur, Stalwart machine politician from New York was chosen as vice-presidential candidate.After this uproar, the Democratic convention seemed like a puny afterthought

Monday, August 18, 2008


Woke up this AM to the strangest dream--I was standing around at a cocktail party with Barack Obama and George Bush, making small talk. Although we were indoors, Barack wore the trench coat he's been wearing in his Olympic commercials. George wore a Mr. Rogers-esque cardigan sweater. They both asked me what I was doing today and I told them I would be playing pool--I don't play pool, so the answer surprised even me. My reply caused George to let out a barking laugh and clap me on the back. Barack merely smiled and shook his head, whether at my folly or George's, I wasn't sure....
Anyway, shaking that off--and it's taken several cups of strong coffee--here is the latest in my mini-series of great national convention moments in the past. This is from 1860, one of our most important election years ever.
When the Republicans met in Chicago—at the “Wigwam” hall constructed especially for this convention in one month's time, out of pine planks—they knew that whoever they picked for President would almost certainly win that high office, because of the disarray among the Democrats. Going into the convention, the chief contender was William Seward, former governor of New York and powerful antislavery speaker, who had the backing of New York City Boss Thurlow Weed and his Tammany machinery. So sure were Seward’s supporters of victory that a cannon had been set up on Seward’s lawn in Albany, ready to blast a celebratory shot at the right time.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the convention….a guy named Abraham Lincoln appeared. Actually, Lincoln had been there all along. Former Congressman, senatorial candidate against Douglas in 1858 (Lincoln had lost, but made his bones in their celebrated debates), Lincoln was the more moderate candidate that many of the delegates were seeking. As the nomination battle heated up, dirty tricks abounded. Thurlow Weed promised the Indiana and Illinois delegations, which supported Lincoln, 100,000 dollars if they threw their votes to Seward. No deal. In return, Lincoln backers waited until Seward’s delegates were outside marching in demonstration around the convention hall, then distributed counterfeit tickets to Lincoln backers. When Seward’s men came back, they found they could not get into the Wigwam to vote.
The Wigwam was set for a rocking, rolling, reeling ride such as would not be seen again in Chicago until 1968. When the voting began, there 10,000 people inside the hall, twenty thousand screaming and chanting on the streets. One observer described the noise inside the place: “Imagine all the hogs ever slaughtered in Cincinnati giving their death squeals together, plus a score of steam whistles going.” After four rounds of balloting, the vote went to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, waiting anxiously in Springfield, was informed by telegram of his victory but advised not to come to Chicago—Seward backers, many of them weeping profusely, were in such a state that it was not advisable for the new Presidential nominee to meet with them. The party’s judicious choice for Lincoln’s vice-president would be Hannibal Hamlin, Senator from Maine and a friend of the defeated Seward’s.
Lincoln would go on to defeat Stephen A. Douglas and become president--and just when we needed him.

Friday, August 15, 2008


The conventions are coming up soon of course and while I love a good convention as well as the next political junkie I sometimes really crave a bit of the spontaneity that characterized the good old days, even if it did mean that nominees would make their acceptance speeches at 7pm--Guam time, that is.
In the next few weeks I'll be sharing my store of information about fabled conventions of the past. I thought I'd start with 1948, the year Harry Truman would run against (and upset badly) Thomas E. Dewey.
By 1948, technology had made televisions both better and cheaper, and 148,000 people nationwide had shelled out for the big black boxes. The 1948 political conventions of both parties were televised only the East Coast. In order to facilitate this, Republicans and Democrats agreed to hold their conventions in Convention Hall in Philadelphia—the Republicans in June, the Democrats a month later. For the first time in history, television cables ran all over the convention floor and batteries of hot lights arched over the stage (in the un-airconditioned Hall, the temperature at the podium was 93 degrees). Speakers wandered around wearing thick pancake makeup (women were told that brown lipstick showed up better on black and white television sets of the day, so most female orators looked like they’d just bitten into a big piece of chocolate).
But people, especially at the Democratic Convention, seemed to get it—TV was theater, TV was spectacle. When India Edwards, executive director of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee, reached the podium to speak, she waved a steak in the air to demonstrate the high price of meat. The best spectacle of all, however, did not quite come off the way it was intended. At two o’clock in the morning, when President Truman reached the stage to accept his party’s nomination, a flock of pigeons was released from a huge Liberty Bell. The birds, who had been trapped all night in the hot and humid bell, went crazy and in a scene straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds,” began dive-bombing delegates, smashing into the rafters of the Hall, and flying straight into the television lights.
Truman and everyone in the Hall, after a moment of stunned silence, broke into uproarious laughter. The few people awake and still watching were privileged to see one of the most wonderful moments of live television ever recorded.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Footprints in the sand

One of the great articles in my beloved New York Daily News yesterday was about what type of flip-flop Obama is wearing while he sojourns in Hawaii, giving rise to the impression that perhaps John McCain is right all along--the dude is a celebrity. Can you imagine anyone caring what kind of footwear, of any type, Old Mr. Wingtip is shod in?
The News also carried a column from Michael Goodwin, Hillary Alarmist, about the Clintons who, of course, are about to sucker poor Obama and suck the air out of the Convention. Poor guy, flip-flopping around Hawaii, while these malevolent old Boomers plot to do him in. I guess things are a bit dull lately--if you don't listen to this kind of hot air, all there is to do is tune in to the hot air announcers at the Olympics, one of whom, the other day, said about an injured American gymnast, "It's like she's gotten a tear in her wedding dress."
Yeah. Oh, but I forgot, there is Jerome R. Corsi, the guy who wrote Unfit to Command, which torpedoed Kerry's hopes in 2004. He's published another book called Obama Nation, which he hopes will to do the same to the Flip-Flop Man. Well, I said recently that Obama needs a good swift-boating to get him going, so maybe here it is (although it sounds like Corsi's book, with its tired melange of stories about drug use and Jeremiah Wright, won't be quite so inflammatory).
In its article on the book, the New York Times acted like these attack bios are a relatively new phenomena but of course they've been with us a long time. Davy Crockett, or his ghost writer, wrote one of the best of them, in 1836, claiming that Martin Van Buren wore women's clothing. You can find it on google.books, a reminder that even hacks like Corsi have nothin' on our forebearers when it comes to vitriol.
Speaking of hacks, anyone interested can hear me blather away in Bill Harnsberger's "Cheers and Jeers" at the Daily Kos, today and tomorrow. I reveal a little know and quite salacious campaign song of the 1950s, having to do with a major candidate's private parts....very shocking

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Johnny, Johnny, Johnny

Well, it turns out to be true, at least the part about John Edwards screwing Reille Hunter, as the National Enquirer reported way back last winter, and you wonder, once again, how a supposedly smart guy can be so stupid. Not necessarily about the affair, although that's not too smart, but about the lying and the cover-up. I mean, when will these guys ever learn? And for how long can we have politicians who compartmentalize their lives in such a way? Who of these men is a whole? One suspects Edwards is just a hole, plain and simple.
I have friends who really supported the guy, who described meeting him and being impressed by his energy and seeming empathy. But I've never understood it, because he did seem like quite a phony. Now, of course, any chance of a position in an Obama administration is down the tubes. Not only did he lie publicly about the affair, but while proclaiming loudly on "Nightline" (scheduled of course just as the Olympics are sucking up all attention--and now this convenient Georgian war!) that he would take a paternity test, he is saved from that by Rielle's adamant refusal not to have one taken. Anyone think that wasn't choreographed? Of course Andrew Young, Edwards' former aide, is claiming to be the father, so if true this means both men were screwing her, which is even seamier, although almost certainly bullshit. Add to this the fact that his national fiance chairman paid her to get out of North Carolina and it all smacks of politics, old school, the kind played way back in 1920, when the Republicans had to clean up presidential nominee Warren G. Harding's sperm trails, and thus sent at least one girlfriend packing on a long, long vacation.
Oh, well. The only consolation is that Edwards is off the public stage and we really don't have to hear about him for a long, long time now. Unless of course we read the Enquirer.

Monday, August 4, 2008

That Dollar Bill

More fuss over John McCain accusing Barack Obama "playing the race card" recently of course, most of it quite manufactured. As Bob Herbert points out in his recent NY Times column Obama's remarks about "not looking like all those other presidents on dollar bills" was a direct response to attacks on him from the McCain faction, not something he had simply invented on the spur of the moment. This is not to say that the Obama campaign is entirely innocent of playing the race card--they played it against Hillary Clinton, taking her remarks about Lyndon Johnson's role in passing the Civil Rights Act and Bobby Kennedy's assassination entirely out of context--but in this case the Democratic candidate was responding to McCain advertising which smeared him.
However, there is a sense in which all this is a false issue. If Obama plays the race card--so what? Presidential candidates play the cards they are dealt. JFK played the "Catholic" card, (while pretending not to), while George Bush played the "white guy" card. Presidents and Presidential candidates from Andrew Jackson to Hubert Humphrey have played the "war" card. Obama will also be subtly playing the "age" card against McCain.
It really is all about who ends up on that dollar bill--or that ten or twenty or fifty--and getting there involves a lot of card dealing, sometimes from the bottom of the deck.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Shootin' Hoops

Finally, as we reach the dog days of August, the dogs have started barking--I had lost hope for anything really nasty going on in this doldumry presidential race, but then John McCain, down about nine points in latest polls, released his lovely anti-Obama piece, which shows the Democratic candidate refusing to visit wounded soldiers and playing basketball while (presumably?) Rome burns. The ad got a lot more play than its six paid airings (as did Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy" piece in 1964, which only had one paid appearance but was repeated endlessly on the news) but it remains to be seen how effective it will be, since its specifics are so easily rebutted--Obama was indeed shooting hoops, but with soldiers in Kuwait.
Still, its a promising start, and much better for McCain than scarfing down bratwurst while Obama tours Berlin. In the meantime, McCain opponents have been having a field day with homemade videos portraying him as the clumsiest and dumbest Republican presidential candidate since, take your pick, Gerald Ford or Ronald Reagan. This latest is just one. So far, some 98 days from the finish line, Obama is winning handily, but it remains to be seen how he will fare under a relentless assault of nasty campaigning which, despite protests from McCain's people, is coming down the pike.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Pretty Dirty Already

My apologies for not blogging more lately. I have been finishing up another book--one about castaways on deserted islands--which has placed my head in far climes and centuries. What part of me that remained in New Jersey has been dealing with the aftereffects of the severe storms which have devastated much of the county I live in, with trees falling on houses (we lost a phone line to a huge limb), power outages, and my daughter being unexpectedly out of school.
In my mental absence, the general election has been shaping up to be a nicely dirty one. Despite the fact that polls have the two candidates running neck and neck, I agree with the Politico article which quotes historians as saying that Barack Obama should beat McCain overwhelmingly. However, as we know, upsets are part of American political history--see Thomas Dewey, running against the very unpopular president Harry Truman--and anything can happen. Thus far, the dirtiest part of the campaign has focused on Michelle Obama; supposedly a tape will soon surface which will show her using the word "whitey" in an envenomed speech at her and Barack's old Chicago church.
This is most unlikely, but is clever dirty politics--as I always say, dirty tricks only work when one is playing to pre-existing prejudices in the hearts of people, and there is a great deal of pre-existing prejudice against black women who are perceived as powerful. To combat this and other smears (that he is a Muslim, that he refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, etc) Obama's campaign has started a website which categorically denies them. This isn't likely to have much effect on prejudiced hearts, but it is a sign that those around the Democratic contender know that he must fight back hard and not let the attacks acrue.
Anyway, after only a week of campaigning, a campaign which was supposed to be clean and dignified is pretty dirty already....
A word today about Tim Russert, of NBC's "Meet the Press," who died suddenly on Friday. Russert is someone I always listened to, even when I didn't agree with him, because I felt he had insight into the workings of Washington politics, so his early death comes as a shock. He and I are exact contemporaries and attended the same undergraduate school, John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio, during the tumultuous late '60s. Our politics there differed--I was far more radical in my response to seminal events like the killing of four students at Kent State University (only a few miles away from John Carroll) in 1969--but he was always an intelligent and essentially moderate and good-humored presence. It'll be hard to be commenting on a presidential campaign without hearing Russert commenting on it as well....

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Let The Wild Rumpus Begin!

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has finally clinched it for the Democrats, after the longest priimary season in history, after twenty debates with his opponent Hillary Clinton, after raising more money than any presidential candidate in history--and it's about time. Primary fatigue has set in in the last month with almost everyone I've spoken to, Democrat or Republican, who feel that it is now time for the two parties to turn their attention to each other.
Obama still has some house-cleaning to do re Hillary Clinton, who is now letting it be known that she will accept a vice-presidential nod. It is not often two such bitter rivals make up in this fashion. JFK and LBJ did it in 1960, although LBJ told a woman friend at the Democratic convention that “One out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.” (One hopes this is not Hillary's calculation.) To me, anyway, it would seem foolish of Obama to place Hillary in this role, even if there are some fairly decent political reasons for doing so.
Almost lost in all of this so far is the fact that Barack Obama is now the first African-American major party nominee for president in American history. Once he shakes the first woman ever to get close to that job, this fact will become more and more important and will work in his favor, hopefully galvanizing Democrats to come out and vote in record numbers (which they have been doing so far in the primaries). Barack Obama will need these record numbers. Despite the dismal record of the current Administration, he is far from a shoo-in--in fact, part of Hillary's refusal to quit is that she understands that sheis definitely the better candidate against John McCain. Obama will be open to charges of inexperience, of being soft on terror, of being unable to even pick the right church to attend. Race will become an issue, although you won't see John McCain himself bringing it up.
However, Obama has a lot going for him as well. McCain is much older, allied with the Bush fiasco in Iraq--despite his current attempts to scamper away from it--and not well-loved by large portions of his own party. It may indeed be, as Barack Obama has been saying since February of 2007 and said again last night in St. Paul, time for a change. It is certainly at last time for a general election rumpus the likes of which we have never seen before. Let it begin.....

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Is Ms. Clinton Crazy?

Michael Goodwin of the New York Daily News, who has been writing a series of rather hysterical anti-Hillary columns, today published responses from readers who agree with his take that Clinton, in her remarks about the 1968 Robert Kennedy assassination, was really talking about a possible Obama hit.
Interesting, several doctors weighed in:

"This was an encoded/unconscious death wish toward Obama. It was not even thinly disguised."
Joseph Reppen, Ph.D., ABPP
"It seems best explained as a Freudian slip."
Tom Schossau, M.D.
"It's hard to know in this campaign whether Hillary's death wish is for Obama, or herself. Whether she has a deep down self-destructive tendency, like the late President [Richard] Nixon, is hard to know, but there are similarities."
William Hogg, M.D.

I had to laugh when I read this. We are apparently now at the stage of a presidential campaign where the good doctors are tossing in "unconscious death wishes" and "Freudian slips." It used to be, before Freud was nearly completely discredited, that somberly tut-tutting shrinks like these were brought in to comment on presidential candidates whose opponents considered them beyond the pale. In the 1964 Goldwater/LBJ slugfest, a nationwide survey of American psychiatrists found that a sizeable percentage of them thought Goldwater was unfit to serve as President because he suffered from clinical paranoia. Going ever further back, in 1896, the august New York Times hired a bunch of alienists (i.e, shrinks) to comment on William Jennings Bryan's psyche. In September of that year, just as the election heated up to fever pitch, the McKinley-supporting Times published an interesting little article entitled “Is Mr. Bryan Crazy?” which looked at any number of the Democratic candidate’s utterances and claimed that they were not the workings of a rational mind. The Times editors also included a letter from a distinguished alienist stating that if Bryan won the election “there would be a madman in the White House.”
Not content with this, the Times interviewed several more alienists and published the results two days later. These eminent medical geniuses said Bryan suffered from megalomania, paranoia querulent (complaining too much), and querulent logorrhea (talking about complaining too much). One other “expert” simply said, “I don’t think Bryan is ordinarily crazy…But I should like to examine him as a degenerate.”
Perhaps Goodwin and the Daily News will enlighten us further about the dark recesses of Hillary's psyche by calling for a round table shrink discussion like this....

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Enough is Enough

Some people have asked me why I seem to take such great delight in the good old days of American presidential dirty tricks--bagmen delivering satchels full of dough in the 1880s, Al Smith being roundly dismissed as a druken papist, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon bugging their opponents campaigns.
I guess it's because these seem like real, old-fashioned, in-your-face-red-blooded-American dirty tricks, as opposed to the game of "gotcha" we've been playing lately. The whole brouhaha about Hillary's comments in South Dakota is the straw that finally broke this camel's back. To claim that she actually meant to refer to the assassination of Robert Kennedy as a way of saying that Barack Obama might be assassinated is simply idiotic and the people who believe it are either idiots or they have a political agenda. The report first came through the New York Post, which wrote that Hillary said ‘Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June,’ making an odd comparison between the dead candidate and Barack Obama.”
This is not the comparison she was making. She was simply referencing--as she has done before, and as others (including myself) have done before--that certain primaries have run well into the summer, including that of 1968. She was not talking about the possibility that Barack Obama might be assassinated. My irritation with people who believe this goes back to the Barack Obama supporters who have "pre-martyred" him, walking around speaking in hushed tones abut the possibility that he might be killed. This tactic makes it seems as if Obama is some holy figure, rather that the very flawed and inexperienced, although inspirational, candidate he is.
This entire Democratic primary began with Hillary and her husband being considered the smartest politicians in the universe. Now we are led to believe they are the dumbest. Somewhere in between lies the truth. In the meantime, I'll take a good bagman anytime....

Friday, May 16, 2008

At Long Last....

Well, the first real salvo of the 2008 general election has been fired and I, for one, am frankly glad to see it. Like a lot of people I have gotten extremely bored with the infighting among the Democrats and even though Hillary is all but gone, I had assumed it would be some time before we got to the donkeys and the elephants going at it trunk and tail.
But our president can always be counted on, can't he? His calling Barack Obama the Neville Chamberlain of the Mideast is the beginning of a long, hot, and hopefully fun summer. In doing so, he was merely following my "Ten Top Smears" through history playbook, specifically Number 10: "You're Not Tough Enough!" which is classically used by Republicans against Democrats, sometimes to devastating effect. John McCain immediately chimed in agreeing with W., and so it seems we have a tactic going here.
Probably not a very good one, though, since Bush's policies in the Mideast have been so roundly discredited, but, still, its nice to see us heading back in the direction of good old-fashioned smears. What with the California Supreme Court overturning the ban on gay marriage, I have to say, I am rubbing my hands and chuckling....

Monday, May 12, 2008

Now THAT was a primary

Although Hillary is soldiering on, it seems the end of this extended Democratic primary season is nearly upon us. Many have decried the nasty politics waged, especially by the Hillary camp, but, by comparison with past primary seasons, it was almost nothing. Some underhanded electioneering by Hillary supporters in North Carolina, where they pretended to register black voters, a few attack ads by both sides, nasty comments during debates--really, how bad was that?
It was certainly nothing compared to one of the nastiest primary campaign battles of all, which took place in 1972, an election most people remember for the Watergate bugging in June, but the winter and spring of that year were filled with trickery and vicious attacks launched by Republican dirty tricksters attempting to influence the outcome of the Democrat primary. If you think what has happened in the last three months was really dirty, keep reading...

Early in 1972, President Nixon, whose approval ratings hovered at only about 48 percent, felt that he was vulnerable to a challenge from a strong Democratic candidate.
So it became the goal of his dirty tricks managers like Special Assistant to the President Dwight Chapin to “foster a split between Democratic hopefuls” in the primaries. Teddy Kennedy was not a problem—the last surviving Kennedy brother had pretty much blown his presidential chances by driving a car off a bridge in 1969 and drowning the young girl with him.
Going into the New Hampshire primary in February, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 running mate, was predicted to be the big winner—in fact, most journalists had already anointed him the Democratic presidential nominee. And Richard Nixon viewed Muskie as a formidable candidate. But then strange things began happening. Suddenly, New Hampshire voters began receiving phone calls from rude black people—phone calls that came in late at night or very early in the morning—saying that they had been bused in from Harlem to work for Muskie. And then conservative editor of the Manchester Union Leader, William Loeb, published a letter purportedly written by an ordinary citizen which accused Muskie of using the word “Canuck” to refer to French-Canadians. In defending himself against this and other slurs on his wife, Muskie, standing outdoors before microphones and cameras, began to cry. Or, since it was snowing, perhaps a snowflake had landed in his eye—it’s impossible to tell from tapes of the incident.
But Muskie did lose his cool, and the rap on him now was that he was unable to handle pressure. He won New Hampshire, but by a much smaller margin than predicted. Only later was it discovered that the “Canuck” letter was written by White House aide Kenneth Clawson.
Things just got worse when Muskie headed for the Florida primary. There, many voters received a letter written on Muskie campaign stationary, which said (falsely) that Hubert Humphrey had been arrested for drunk driving in 1967. Other letters under the Muskie letterhead claimed that prominent Democratic senator and presidential hopeful Henry “Scoop” Jackson had fathered a child with a 17-year-old girl.
No detail was too small. Posters appeared on Florida highways which read “Help Muskie in Busing More Children Now.” Ads were placed in tiny free shopper’s newsletters saying: “Muskie: Would you accept a black running mate?” And, at a Muskie press conference in Miami, someone let go a handful of white mice with tags attached to them which read: “Muskie is a rat fink.”
The person behind all this Florida mayhem was Donald Segretti, prince of dirty tricks. Segretti, whose name means “secret” in Italian, was a California lawyer who had been law school pals with several students who later became Nixon staffers—in particular, Dwight Chapin, the man who hired him and paid him $16,000, plus expenses, to wreak havoc in the primaries.
Muskie came in fourth in Florida and was finished as a candidate. Segretti’s role was discovered in the investigations after the Watergate break-in and he served four and a half months in prison for misdemeanors associated with illegal campaign activities.
After Florida, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern were the main Democratic candidates, and Nixon’s men rose to combat this. Setting up a phony “Democrats for Nixon” group (shades of Tricky Dick’s California gubernatorial run) they produced leaflets describing Humphrey as a man who, as Johnson’s Vice-President, had helped escalate the war in Vietnam. Some of the leaflets had a picture of a fish over Humphrey’s face, with the caption: “There’s Something Fishy About Hubert Humphrey.”
Partly as a result of the ill feelings caused by these fake ads, Humphrey and McGovern were unable to present a united front when McGovern became the nominee and the time came to go after Richard Nixon.

Friday, May 9, 2008

No Coronation

Many of us who thought Hillary had the momentum to pull yet another surprise this past Tuesday are perhaps as surprised as the candidate herself that she was finally unable to. It is interesting that once again, as in 2004, as in 1948, poll (in this case, the ones which showed the race narrowing drastically in North Carolina) were so wrong. It appears, however, that even Hillary believed them.
There are numerous opinions on what went wrong for her --some say her support of the suspending the gasoline tax (truly a bit clod-footed for such an adept campaigner) did her in, others that the Jeremiah Wright thing had simply played itself out.
In any event, striding and beaming his way through Capitol Hill the other day, Obama now looks like the candidate, for the first time. Hillary needs to make an exit within the next few weeks, and most people think that right now she should be negotiating for a consolation prize. Vice-president? (Obama does not seem to be dismissing it outright, but a bad idea). Paying off her debts? Lots of opposition there. Making her Secretary of State? Maybe. Or maybe she can just go back to being an effective Senator from New York. Her disappointment must be great, but unlike many, I don't think "the Clinton legacy" will be smeared, either for her or Bill. Their main problem, I think, was an assumption that Hillary was going to be the certain victor. As pasts presidential candidates like Thomas E. Dewey and Richard Nixon (in 1960) could tell her, that is a big mistake.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Do or Die-- Again

In this most fascinating and lengthy of Democratic primary races, it is that time again for Hillary--should she lose both Indiana and North Carolina today, she will find herself in a position where she probably needs to get out of the race. Or even if she splits close contests. It's unlikely, but possible, that she may also win both states, if Jeremiah Wright has hurt Obama as badly as many polls suggest he has.
The race has definitely been getting dirtier. There has been some scandal among Obama supporters about Hillary's pushpolling techniques in North Carolina, although they haven't yet stooped to the level of those used against John McCain by Karl Rove in 2000 in South Carolina. What is a little scarier is that a pro-Hillary group called Women's Voices Women's Votes has supposedly been robocalling black North Carolina voters and telling them their registration packets are in the mail, thus confusing many who have already registered.
In my opinion, at this point in time, despite or because of these (historically-speaking) rather tame dirty tricks, Hillary is making a strong case that she will be the better candidate against John McCain this fall. This is simply because she responds to aggression far better than Obama does. This is not about who would make the better president--a point I make over and over again is that you can do a lot of nasty things during presidential campaigns and still become a very good chief executive-- but simply about which Democratic candidate would have the best chance of winning in the fall. Of late, anyway, that would be Hillary.

Friday, May 2, 2008

"C--T is a beautiful thing!"

The other day, a Baptist minister rose at a John McCain "town hall" event to ask the Republican presidential candidate if he had called his wife a "c--t" (Read and view it here at the Huffington Post). This caused McCain to stutteringly ("now, now..uh") tell the guy that such language was not allowed and the Secret Service then escorted him off the premises. The questioner's name is Marty Parrish and he claims to be genuinely concerned about McCain's temper. The alleged "c--t" incident occurred during McCain's 1992 run for Senate reelection, according to a book called The Real McCain by Democrat Cliff Schecter, the cover of which shows McCain fervently embracing another "c--t" (well, by some standards) George Bush. My study of presidential election campaigns shows this to be the first time the "c--t" word has been used in a public forum (although privately, no doubt, there have been numerous "c--ts" thrown at Hillary, and Hillary herself probably directed one or two at Gennifer Flowers in 1992). And, no doubt, Parrish, a Biden supporter, had political motivations. What disturbs me more is that there was a need to escort Parrish from the house. After all, he was not carrying a loaded gun, although I guess the c-word is considered akin to that by polite society, left or right wing. Using it should not, of course, disqualify McCain from the presidency, but it is quite amusing in that the report is probably true, given Cindy McCain's truly "c--t"-ish aspect. Not that there's anything wrong with it, of course. As my wife's friend Elizabeth is prone to sing out at odd moments, "C--t is a beautiful thing!" But I guess we still have to pretend it is not....

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Leader of the Pack

As we near North Carolina and Indiana, Obama is finally speaking out strongly against Reverend Jeremiah Wright, but unfortunately, like John Kerry before him, seems to have little idea of how to respond convincingly to aggressive tactics. Obama is still ahead and the math is still on his side, but...there is a growing sense that Hillary may somehow be able to pull this off. Dorothy Wickenden in a "Talk" piece in this week's New Yorker echoes what I've been saying on my blog--and in my book, Anything for A Vote--about the 1988 election setting the tone for twenty years worth of negative campaigning, but she and I draw different conclusions. Hillary, she believes, is stripping the bark from Barack Obama, just as Lee Atwater, Republican hit man, promised to "strip the bark from that little bastard [Michael Dukakis] and make Willie Horton his running mate."
I don't believe Hillary's actions are anywhere near as offensive as Atwater's--I don't think she has yet claimed, for instance, that Barack would release serial killers from jail if elected. Secondly, Atwater's tactics worked. Despite Wickenden's assertion that the "civility" of Barack Obama and John McCain has "lifted them above the pack," I believe that Hillary, still growling and frothing, has a definite shot at this just because she is so ready to mud-wrestle. But, as I wrote the other day, we haven't gotten anywhere near 1988-level election nastiness--1988 was the year we were letting go of Ronald Reagan and finding out it wasn't "morning in America," after all. The level of anger was very, very high--much more so than now, even with Iraq and the economy.
However, I do long for a few George H.W. Bushisms like “I stand for anti-bigotry, anti-Semitism and anti-racism” or “I’m going to make sure that everyone who has a job, wants a job.” Hillary, Barack, John--they're just too well-spoken these days....even when they're insulting each other.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Justice denied....

No sooner do I weigh in on voter registration issues in Florida (see below) when the Supreme Court returns a 6-3 decision upholding the legality of Indiana's tough voter ID law, which insists that every voter produce a valid photo ID before being allowed to vote--a passport or driver's license. This was expected, but it is a shame nonetheless. The justifications for the law “should not be disregarded simply because partisan interests may have provided one motivation for the votes of individual legislators,” Justice Stevens wrote. This is what is known, not as blind justice, but justice with without peripheral vision. Once again, as I wrote this morning, no one has proved that voter fraud consisting of pretending to be someone else when you vote is prevalent in this country anymore. If it is, let's see the statistics. Absent those, these Voter ID laws are intended to keep poor and mainly Democratic people from voting. And they will work.

Ohio Redux?

Damien Cave's scary article in the New York Times today underscores the fact that voting in Florida in the general election of 2008--if we ever get candidates for said election, that is--is going to be a hit-or-miss proposition for many people, especially Democrats. The Republican-controlled state legislature has passed laws which are akin to those on the books in Ohio in their severity. The League of Women Voters may have to pay penalties of fines of up to $1,000 if they turn in forms late. Republican Bureaucrats will scan driver's licences and compare Social Security numbers. The Times article quotes Joe Pickens, a Republican who served on the Florida House’s Ethics and Elections Committee in 2005 and 2006, as saying, with great pomposity: "Some say we err on the side of caution. I would say that’s the place we should be.”
Democrats are saying that all of this is just a way to exclude new voters, Democrats in the main, from poorer neighborhoods, who tend not to have correct ID. The same types of bureaucratic snares were set for Democratic votes in Ohio in 2004, and many people think that, because of this, John Kerry lost the election. That is debatable. What is not debatable is that Republicans have yet to actually come up with any statistics which show that fraudulent voter registration is a real issue in this country anymore.
As I have said in the past, this election will not be decided by "floaters," who travel from state to state voting numerous times for the same candidate. But, if it's down to a close one on election eve, it may be decided by Republican officials whose main goal is to keep poorer Democrats from voting.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Cry Havoc

Well, it's off to Indiana and North Carolina. More and more people are claiming that Hillary's persistance is destroying the Democrats in 08, while others claim that the fight is a valid one which will in the end strengthen the party.
I do like the fact that others are coming around to what I've been saying all along, however, which is that we have only just now started to see the dirty tricks. Lisa Schiffren at The National Review’s The Corner, a conservative blog, quoted in yesterday's New York Times:

"By what reckoning has this primary fight been so nasty? So dirty? So mean? We have all seen much worse. If anything, until this past month the questions and the charges have been much too dainty. Barack Obama is a stranger to most of the electorate. It is just fine to question any and all of his associations and political views. Failure to do so is malfeasance; failure to highlight his weaknesses as a leader would be some kind of suicide pact for an opponent."

Well, the last bit is a little silly, since in these attacks most charges are either wildly exaggerated or even made up out of wholecloth--so that even strengths become "weaknesses," as we saw in the Swiftboating of John Kerry--but it's good to hear that people are finally getting it. The dirty tricks have just started and, so far in that regard, Hillary is winning, despite the kind of scolding she got from the New York Times in their finger-waving (taking a cue from Bill?) editorial, "The Low Road to Victory." In it, they claim that "voters are getting tired of [negative campaigning]; it is demeaning the political process; and it does not work." Whaaa? "Demeaning the political process?" Excuse me, Pollyanna, it is the political process. And of course it works--it has worked for over 200 years, and it worked in 1896 when the William McKinley-loving New York Times hired a group of shrinks to assail William Jennings Bryan as a nut and a degenerate.
The Times ends with a cry for Hillary to "call off the dogs." Nonsense. "Cry havoc," I say, and let them slip. The fun is just beginning.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Deep in the Kitchen

On the eve of this PA primary, which Hillary must really win by an impressive margin in order to have a fighting chance, both she and Obama have released new commercials attacking each other. As regular readers know, I, seemingly alone among the pundits, have not been all that impressed with the level of nastiness in this campaign so far--I mean, compared to 1988 or 1964, it's like watching two private school kids thumb their noses at each other--but now the ads are catching up to the glories of "Daisy" in '64, to the horror of "Revolving Door" and the sheer breathless hilarity of "Tank" in '88.
Hillary's new "Kitchen" ad has the makings of a classic. She brings in images from the Great Depression, World War II, 9/11, the current recession, the Iraq war and ends by quoting Harry Truman: "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen." (Politicians on the losing side of things almost always turn to Truman because of his 1948 comeback victory against Thomas E. Dewey. Doesn't matter if they're Democrat or Republican--George H.W. Bush claimed Truman would have "voted Republican" were he alive in that 1992 Bush-Clinton contest.)
I always say about attack ads, one, they work, despite what people claim when asked if they like them. And two, the more gratuitously absurd they are--and "Kitchen" is pretty absurd--the better they work. Tying these unrelated images together is completely ridiculous, as is tossing in a hackneyed line from a president who was often ineffectual and despised by his own party ("To Err is Truman" was a favorite line of the time). And, of course, Hillary's time in the White House was not, after all, as president.
Obama's response is a pallid ad called "He Has What It Takes," which is far too short in the visceral, gut-level image department to have any effect--it bores from the beginning, with Obama nattering on about how we are "one people, united." A nice message, but, in nice vs. nasty, nasty always wins out.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Great White Whale

The day before one of the biggest primaries of the year--and who would have guessed twelve months ago that we would still be battling it out within the Democratic party--and each candidate is "criss-crossing" Pennsylvania, as the pundits like to say, seeking votes and delegates. While I don't agree with Nora Ephron's over-simplification in a recent column that the next president will be elected by angry Pennsylvania white men, I do agree with her when it comes to not counting Hillary out. She simply does not stop coming at you. As an angry (New Jersey) white man myself, I find this both admirable and a little disconcerting, so I can understand how those PA dudes must be feeling. However, my gut instinct is that Hillary is going to win in PA bigger than expected, because Obama is, ever so slightly, back on his heels a little. Whether it was the debate commentators, Hillary, or Obama himself, with "Cling-gate," he had finally been "defined." A "narrative" has been created for tomorrow's primary, one all the media will now be following. It ain't Moby Dick, but I guess it will have to do. We'll see who gets harpooned.....

Friday, April 18, 2008


I think the current brouhaha over the questions asked of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the Philly shootout of a few days ago is quite amusing. Should George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson have queried these two over such trivial matters as absent flagpins or faulty Bosnia memories? Where was the substance?
Well, I say wearily, since when is substance a part of staged presidential "debates" these days? Where did anyone ever get the idea that real matters of importance are discussed in these so carefully managed events? Back in 1960, in the Kennedy-Nixon debates, moderated by the likes of Howard K. Smith, both candidates were actually asked about substantive issues and gave lengthy answers. But --aha! Since those watching on television decided that Kennedy won, simply because he looked a helluva lot better than Nixon, substance was almost entirely lacking the next time anyone even dared have another general election debate, which was in 1976, between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.
Ever since, tiepins, and "gotcha's" like "There you go again!" have ruled the day. This is why most people I know can seldom watch an entire debate all the way through. It's just too painful.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


I have, as readers of this blog will know, been a little disappointed in the level of dirty tricks played so far in the only active portion of this election, the Democratic primary, but last night's debate between Hillary and Obama at least aired out a certain level of nastiness. General consensus is that Obama was continually on the defensive, assailed by Hillary for his "clinging to guns and religion" remark, forcing poor Obama to say that he understood that hunting was "culturally" important (there's his inner anthropologist again!). Obama also had to defend his relationship with Bill Ayers, former Weather Underground bomber, whom he called, rather hilariously, "a guy in my neighborhood," as if the two met hanging out on their stoops sipping tallboys.
Well, we'll see if this does Hillary any good. Polls show her once-commanding Pennsylvania lead shrinking ahead of this Tuesday's primary and Obama holding a strong lead among Democrats in general, who think he can beat McCain in the fall. I think this game of "gotcha" will ultimately work against Hillary--and personally, for a lover of a good dirty trick--bags full of cash exchanging hands, sexual innuendos, really nasty smears--this is a little bit like being tickled to death. Get it on, folks, or forget about it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Game

At yesterday's "compassion forum" (sigh) held near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as we approach the primary on April 22, Hillary acquitted herself well, going after Barack Obama for his supposedly elitist statements about the working class clinging to guns and religion and prejudice because they were bitter have-nots. Having finally gotten an issue she can strike the Teflon Obama with, she has gone to town with it, and just in time, with her once-commanding lead in PA shrinking.
But it just underscores the odd, almost Alice in Wonderland nature of this Democratic primary so far. Really, Obama's statements were not elitist--merely honest, if a bit too generalized--and I get the feeling most people know that. But by the rules of The Game (as presidential politics was being called as far back as 1796) we have to accept that she has scored some points, that Obama has committed an error.
Presidential politics is the first and greatest of our national pastimes, as I often say. In the 19th century, voter turn out was consistently in the high 70% (reaching an all time high of 82% of eligible voters in the truly crooked election of 1876). While we haven't reached that in the 20th or 21st centuries, this current contest, preliminary as it is, is really reaching out to voters. In the last few elections, the Game got kind of boring--that lost in space feeling you get when a baseball game enters the sixth inning and you know nothing, ever, is going to happen--but I am happy to see that we are all keeping score and cheering. And jeering.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Gee, I'm Sorry. I Really Am.

Just back from lovely Roanoke College, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Salem, Virginia, where I had a nice time talking to members of the student body about dirty tricks in American presidential elections. My impression was that most of the kids hadn't heard about many of the election stories from our fabled and fraudulent past--no one aged 18-20 raised his or her hand when I asked if any of them knew who Willie Horton was--but everyone present seemed to feel that negative politics played a powerful role in the elections they had witnessed so far, and that the question of who was being more negative was a major debating point in the Hillary-Obama clash to date.
The students at Roanoke were very tuned in to the constant apologies going on this campaign, as well as the firings of aides who had made comments deemed insenstive. One young woman asked me if this was the first campaign where such apologies and dismissals were such a major factor, and I think, to this extent, it is. It's quite amusing really--can we really imagine Teddy Roosevelt apologizing to William Howard Taft for going him "a fathead with the brains of a guinea pig?" Or Harry Truman apologizing to Richard Nixon for telling voters they might to go hell if they voted for the Trickster in 1960?
The most recent "I'm sorry," of course, features West Virginia Senator John D.
Rockefeller IV, who said in an interview that McCain's time dropping bombs on North Vietnam did not prepare him for the everyday concerns of ordinary Americans. What is there in that to apologize for? The McCain campaign, apparently feeling they had a winner with this one, also demanded that Barack Obama, whom Rockefeller supports, should apologize as well! (And Obama did.)
All of these apologies, as well as the demands for same, are in the main insipid and politically inspired. And I predict, once we hit the general election, that they will soon stop.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

An Amazon's Bosom

Here's a look at the campaign of 1840, between Democratic incumbent Martin Van Buren and Whig challenger William Henry Harrison, one of my favorite when it comes to the triumph of illustion over fact. I start with a quote from Thomas Elder which I think summarizes the way American politicians view presidential elections.
It also contains the strangest attack ever made against a sitting president, by a Congressman aptly named Charles Ogle.

“Passion and prejudice properly aroused and directed…do about as well as principle and reason in a party contest.”
-- Thomas Elder, Whig politician

Martin Van Buren didn’t know it when he entered the presidency in 1836, but he was a “gone Chicken” before he had barely begun—all thanks to the Panic of 1837, the worst economic recession the country had yet seen.
That this panic was partially the result of Andrew Jackson’s monetary policies made things even worse for Van Buren. Under Jackson, the United States government made millions of dollars by selling land to speculators. The government then deposited the money in Jackson’s “pet” banks—run by cronies of his—instead of the Bank of the United States, which Jackson had gutted. These local banks made large loans, often to speculators who bought even more land from the government. Add to this vicious circle high inflation, a crop failure in 1835, and a new “hard money” law which forced banks to repay money borrowed from the government in specie rather than currency and, by the summer of 1837, America’s economic life had ground to a standstill. The Panic would last for several years, forcing factories to close and sending families to beg on the streets.
The Whigs held their first national nominating convention in December of 1839, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A strange thing happened—the boisterous convention, attended by farmers, disgruntled bankers, pro-tariff and anti-tariff forces, slaveowners and abolitionists—resembled nothing more than a passionate Democratic rally. Henry Clay hoped to be the Whig candidate (a young Illinois lawyer in attendance, Abraham Lincoln, pronounced him the “beau ideal of a statesman”) but because Clay was a Mason, the Antimasons would not vote for him. The nomination instead went to Old Tip, William Henry Harrison. His vice-presidential ticket balancer was Virginia Senator John Tyler.
The Democrats knew they were in trouble when they met in Baltimore in May to pick their candidate—and thousands of Whigs were waiting for them in the streets, marching and chanting:

With Tip and Tyler
We’ll bust Van’s biler.

Well, maybe you had to be there, but it certainly got the Democrats attention. The times they were a-changin’ but there was nothing the party could do but renominate Van Buren. They balked once again at Richard Johnson, who “openly and shamefully lives in adultery with a buxom young negro,” as one anonymous letter-writer had it, but in the end, he was nominated, as well.

The Candidates

Democrat: Martin Van Buren:
Martin Van Buren was basically a fairly decent guy from a rich family with a lot of government service behind him who didn’t know how to handle an economic crisis. He was seen as the lackey of the popular “people’s President” whose vice-president he had been. The first cartoon portraying the Democratic Party as a donkey appeared during this election. Jackson rode the beast, Van Buren walked behind it, hat in hand, saying obsequiously “I shall tread in the footsteps of my illustrious predecessor.”

Whig: William Henry Harrison
Harrison, at 68, was getting up there in years, but he still inspired a great deal of loyalty as war hero. And, in one of the most successful makeovers until George Herbert Bush went from New England preppie to Texas aw-shucks oilman, this Virginia aristocrat would soon become a “just-folks” guy with a log cabin constituency.

The Campaign
The Whigs were handed a wonderful gift at the beginning of the 1840 campaign. Just after their convention, The Baltimore Republican published a remark supposedly made by a Whig backer of Henry Clay about Harrison: “Give him a barrel of hard cider and a pension of two thousand a year and, my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin, by the side of a ‘sea-coal’ fire and study moral philosophy.”
This was meant to be an insult, but the Whigs turned it into the campaign’s greatest asset. In almost no time, Harrison became the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate, a guy who hung out with the coonskin cap boys, plowed the back forty with his own hands, and was always ready to raise a glass of cider. Forgot about Harrison’s Virginia ancestry and ownership of at least 2000 acres of land—Harrison was now a man of the people. The Whigs organized huge rallies attended by thousands of people, and held parades four and five miles long. The log cabin symbol was everywhere: there were log cabin-shaped newspapers, songbooks, pamphlets, and badges. You could buy Log Cabin Emollient or whiskey in log cabin-shaped bottles from the E.C. Booz distillery, from which we get the name booze.
The Democrats protested, mostly in vain, that Harrison wasn’t born in a log cabin, didn’t drink hard cider, and, when you came right down to it, anyway, was not even that great a war hero (Harrison, a mediocre strategist, had sustained heavy casualties in the fight at Tippecanoe). It didn’t too a bit of good. Crying “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!” the Whigs charged onward. Because Democrats whispered that Harrison did nothing without his political handlers—that he was “An Old Gentleman in Leading Strings”—he was actually sent out to make a few stump speeches, becoming the first presidential candidate ever to do so. Democrats groaned that the man talked about nothing at all, but crowds gathered everywhere to hear him.

The Winner: William Henry Harrison
The popular vote was closer than some people expected it to be: Harrison’s 1,275,390 votes winning out over Van Buren’s 1,128,854, but Old Tip killed in the Electoral College, 234 votes to the President’s 60. An incredible 78 percent of eligible voters turned out.
The contest had been so vitriolic that there was no kissing and making up afterwards. “We have been sung down, lied down, [and] drunk down,” wrote the Wheeling Times. “Right joyous are we that the campaign of 1840 is closed.” The Whigs were not exactly gracious in victory. Harrison’s election, they proclaimed, was proof that voters had “placed their seal of condemnation upon a band of the most desperate, aspiring and unprincipled demagogues that ever graced the annals of despotism.”

Running off at the Mouth
A Congressman named Charles Ogle made a three-day-long speech in the House of Representatives saying that the White House was “as splendid as that of the Caesars and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion,” that Van Buren had mirrors nine feet high in which he admired himself, that he slept on fine French linens, ate from silver plates with forks of gold, and—most incredibly—that he had caused to be constructed on the White House grounds a pair of “clever sized hills” that resembled “an Amazon’s bosom, with a miniature knoll or hillock on its apex, to denote the nipple.”
This was, as Democrats and even some horrified Whigs protested, a bunch of really weird lies but the speech was distributed nationwide and further set up the dichotomy between the supposedly aristocratic Van Buren and his supposedly countrified opponent Harrison.

Mum’s the Word
The Democrats attacked Harrison for the way his handlers –among them Thurlow Weed, the brilliant Tammany operative who was managing the campaign – kept him from replying even to the most innocuous queries about political issues. Was “Granny Harrison” senile? Was he a “man in an iron cage?” The Whigs denied this, but in private the prominent Whig Nicholas Biddle cautioned “Let the use of pen and ink be wholly forbidden [to Harrison] as if he were a mad poet in Bedlam.”