Old-School Negative Campaigns: Pimps, Hoes And Innuendo

If you think the Swift Boat Vets are harsh, you need a history lesson.

In politics, a lot of mud gets slung, and this year's presidential campaign has been no exception.

But anyone who thinks the attacks on John Kerry's Senate record are overly harsh, or that Kerry has crossed the line with his contention that Bush has a record of dishonesty to his country, needs a history lesson. If anything, this year's dirt is kiddie stuff compared to presidential battles of the past.

In his 1796 campaign, John Adams and his camp threatened that "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced" if his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, were elected. Jeffersonians shot back by accusing Adams of employing Charles C. Pinckney, his running mate, as a pimp sent overseas with orders to "procure four pretty girls as mistresses, a pair for each elderly gentleman." Adams countered with wit, writing to a friend: "I do declare upon my honor, if this be true, General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two." Funny, until he lost the election.

The race of 1828 showed that the candidates had learned from their forefathers (literally, as contender John Quincy Adams was the son of our second president), but the mud they slung at each other ended up splattered on their wives' reputations. Sure, Teresa Heinz Kerry can be a bit of a spitfire, and those Bush twins a tad rambunctious at times (see "Sexual Politics: When A Candidate's Wife Or Daughter Trips Him Up"), but neither candidate could get away with making their antics a major campaign issue.

John Quincy Adams claimed opponent Andrew Jackson's wife was adulterous, and Jackson responded by saying that Adams' wife was born out of wedlock. Jackson ended up the victor, but his wife passed away shortly after he assumed office, and he was certain the besmirching of her pristine character led to her early demise.

If the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — a group that ran ads disputing Kerry's claims of military heroism (see "Will Reopening John Kerry's War Wounds Hurt His Campaign?") — seem aggressive, consider the accusations that James Buchanan battled in his 1856 race for the White House. A victim of congenital palsy, Buchanan had mild double vision causing him to tilt his head slightly to the left to compensate. His adversaries claimed that the crook in his neck came from a failed effort to hang himself.

Americans may prefer their leaders to take the moral high ground, but at the same time polls show people respond to the information conveyed in attack ads, so the onslaught is destined to continue. As painful it may be to admit, dirty politics is as American as apple — or mud — pie.