We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Has the United States ever had a presidential candidate who said things as outrageous as Donald Trump has this year? I’d imagine we’ve had some wild accusations hurled in the past, but have any candidates stooped to the levels we’re hearing today? —Marie Wilson
Some of you may recall that in a column last year about why someone would mount a long-shot campaign for president, I basically laughed off the possibility that Donald Trump had a chance in 2016. My thinking, like a lot of people’s (not that it lets any of us off the hook), was: sure, the political process had gotten pretty gruesome, but come on—we couldn’t be that far gone. As it turned out, of course, we were. Now we’re about to find out if the road to the White House runs lower than anyone ever dreamed.
Still, let’s not be naive. Mudslinging is as old as the two-party system, and trash talk helped get many of our most prominent statesmen into the history books. In the infamous campaign of 1800, Thomas Jefferson had on his payroll a guy named James Thomson Callender, a newspaperman, pamphleteer, and specialist in what we now call opposition research. Having already helped scupper Alexander Hamilton’s career in public office by exposing an adulterous dalliance (and alleging corruption), Callender now went to work on President John Adams, calling him “mentally deranged” and a “hideous hermaphroditic creature.”
His Adams-bashing got Callender locked away for a spell under the Sedition Act. Afterwards, when the newly elected Jefferson didn’t reward him as he’d hoped, Callender went to press with the story that the president’s slave Sally Hemings had borne Jefferson several little Jeffersons, as supported by DNA testing two centuries later. For their part, Adams’s Federalist allies had long been muttering about Hemings and (later sources suggest) supposed irregularities in Jefferson’s own parentage, though they didn’t think to demand his birth certificate.
Given our nation’s dismal track record on issues of race, it’s no shocker that a lot of such smear jobs involved claiming a candidate might have some nonwhite relatives. In 1828 Andrew Jackson complained about backers of his opponent, John Quincy Adams, dragging family into it—saying Jackson’s mom had been a prostitute and that he had a black half-brother sold into slavery. None of this was true, but the pro-Adams faction got closer to the mark when they called Old Hickory’s wife, Rachel, a bigamist: the Jacksons had eloped before Rachel’s first husband actually obtained the divorce he’d filed for. She took the public shaming hard and, shortly after the election, died suddenly, apparently of a heart attack; her embittered Andy forever cursed his foes as murderers.
With the presidency on the line, political operatives have tried saying anything and everything. In 1928, Republicans circulated photos of Democratic candidate Al Smith at the mouth of a tunnel (it was actually the Holland Tunnel, under the Hudson River), accompanied by text explaining that Smith, a Catholic, had constructed a sub-Atlantic passageway to the Vatican through which he could report to the Pope for his orders. And you thought the Obama’s-a-secret-Muslim stuff was a stretch.
And yet, one reasonably objects, in these cases the candidates themselves remained presidentially above the fray and let surrogates do the uglier work. Here’s where Trump—his id seemingly hooked straight up to the public record via video feed and smartphone—may indeed be a groundbreaker. Has any high-profile candidate been more personally outrageous? Needless to say, many have supported positions that would seem outright loopy now but were within the political mainstream at the time—the most unabashedly racist candidate today would hardly defend chattel slavery; the primmest teetotaler wouldn’t argue for prohibition. Third-party candidates have perhaps been more inclined to unpredictable talk: in the last days of the 1992 race, H. Ross Perot told reporters that President George H.W. Bush’s dirty-tricks team planned to target his daughter by shopping doctored photos to tabloids and disrupting her wedding.
The nearest thing to what we’re seeing now, though, may have been a sitting president whose public statements were so wild he didn’t even get a shot at re-election. During maybe the worst speaking tour in U.S. political history, Andrew Johnson in 1866 suggested that divine Providence itself might have taken out Abraham Lincoln to get the right man in charge of the Union, routinely compared himself to Jesus, and went way off script in response to hecklers, at one point proposing that a congressional adversary be hanged. In Indianapolis he was shouted down entirely by an unruly and ultimately riotous crowd. Johnson, to quote the articles of impeachment later filed against him, “did . . . make and deliver with a loud voice certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues, and therein utter loud threats and bitter menaces as well against Congress as the laws of the United States duly enacted thereby, amid the cries, jeers, and laughter of the multitudes then assembled and in hearing.” Yes, there was a time when being a provocative blowhard could be considered an impeachable offense for a president. Now, I grimly note, a sizable chunk of the electorate considers it a qualification for office. —Cecil Adams