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Commentary | MAX BOOT

It's Much More Fun in the Mud

Venom and an occasional duel: Politics used to be interesting.

August 19, 2004|MAX BOOT | Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamilton was one of the most polarizing figures of the early republic -- the Newt Gingrich of his day -- but he was hardly unique as a target of calumny. Even the sainted George Washington lost his immunity from criticism by the end of his eight years in office. His farewell address was denounced by one newspaper as "the loathings of a sick mind."

In such a poisonous political climate, it was inevitable that passions would spill over into violence. Today we get exercised because the vice president told a senator that he should go perform a sex act on himself, and a potential first lady told a reporter to "shove it." In 1798, a Republican and a Federalist representative beat each other on the floor of Congress with a hickory stick and fire tongs. During a political rally in New York, Hamilton was pelted with stones, one of which hit his forehead.

And then, of course, there were the duels.

The most famous was the one on July 11, 1804, in which Vice President Aaron Burr killed former Treasury Secretary Hamilton. (Imagine Dick Cheney plugging Robert Rubin.) But this was hardly an anomaly. By one count, between 1795 and 1807 there were 16 "affairs of honor" to settle political quarrels. Hamilton's son, Philip, died in such a shootout just before Hamilton did.

So let's keep a little perspective, shall we? Sure, the Bush and Kerry camps may say nasty things about each other. Charges of "liar" and "waffler," "appeaser" and "warmonger" will fly. But compared with the nation's founding -- widely considered the high point of American politics -- things have actually gotten pretty tame.

Maybe if we had more backbiting in our politics more of the electorate would actually tune in.

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