Of campaigns, vitriol, and reality

For many of us, history as a concept is made up of events we have lived through, can recall easily, and can compare with the present. Everything else is safely tucked away in a book, frames of reference from long ago for historians to conjure with.

Which is a shame, especially when it comes to a political campaign like the one that ended on Tuesday night, a slog of low-road tactics that for all practical purposes began before Barack Obama took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth about the ways and means of the candidates in this year’s election push, the cries from both camps about it being the “dirtiest campaign ever,” the demonization of the presidential names (the incumbent hadn’t “figured out what it means to be an American” and the challenger was a “dishonest, clueless, robotic rich man”), and the stupendous spending involved ($2 billion and counting, equaling Rwanda’s gross national product) suggest there’s never been anything like it in American politics.

The $2 billion figure certainly sets a stupendously high bar, but the hyperbolic rhetoric of campaign statements and the demonization of individuals who have put themselves up for a vote by their peers are old hat, courtesy of one of history’s hallmark standards: When it comes to human behavior, there is very little that is new under the sun. We can double-down on that when it comes to politics.

Take 1800, and contemporary accounts of a year in which two of our founder-giants, John Adams, the incumbent president, and Thomas Jefferson, the vice president, faced off in the election for president:
Campaigning in what one Federalist-era chronicler called a “vat of contumely” (i.e., rude, arrogant remarks or acts), the camps gave no quarter in their attacks.

For Adams’s followers, the author of the Declaration of Independence was “mean-spirited fellow whose mother was a squaw and his father a mulatto.” He was also guilty of “cowardice, of being an atheist, and a libertine,” per various pamphlets.

Jefferson’s followers didn’t hold back, labeling the sitting president, among other things, as a “hideous hermaphroditical character.” In the event voters misconstrued that last description, Adams was also said to be “a tyrant, a fool, a criminal, a hypocritical Yankee, and a criminal.”

Jefferson won the day, but his chief rhetorician (now “speechwriter”) found himself in jail the following year after being convicted for libeling Adams.

Historians have done comparable work in writing about other national elections that spawned high-voltage charges back and forth – Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln against the likes of Kentucky’s John Breckinridge, Tennessee’s John Bell, and Stephen Douglas of Illinois in 1860 and his former general-in-chief, George McClellan, in 1864. FDR jousted with Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, and Thomas Dewey in 1932, 1936, 1940,and 1944, and Harry Truman faced Dewey in a barn-burner in 1948.

Each campaign, in its own way, mirrored what we have seen in the recently concluded election cycle – save for the extent of the electioneering, which was mere months-long in earlier times.

Time will tell how the rhetoric of the 2012 campaign will play out in the governance to follow, a governance that will have the same electoral ingredients that were in place a week ago: A Democratic president and Senate, and a Republican House hard-wired, it seems, to the abrasive tone of its Tea Party adherents.

Early on Wednesday morning, Mitt Romney gave a short concession speech that was both bitter-sweet and gracious. President Obama followed with a victory speech that was gracious in return, quietly triumphant, and forward-looking.

Later in the morning, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell added some chill to the warm air generated by Romney and Obama, saying, “The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term. Now it’s time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office.”

For his part, John Boehner, speaker of the US House and now the titular leader of the Republican Party, was less chilly, offering the notion that the elections were a mandate to take “steps together” to boost the economy.

The recent campaign suggests that we take such sentiments at less than face value, but Americans are hopeful, and we shall see.