In the weeks before Election Day, we heard regularly that John McCain was running the sleaziest campaign in a generation, if not in American history. That claim might strike some as another case of journalistic weakness for hyperbole. After all, we’ve also heard claims that this was the most important election of our lifetimes (as if the outcome of the 2000 race hadn’t altered history), assertions that the Internet changed everything this year (though Obama surely would have won without it), and effusions about young people’s unprecedented engagement (an echo of 1992, when youth turnout actually spiked—as it did not this year).
But unlike those exaggerations, the line about McCain threatens to stain a man’s name for history. And when viewed without partisan blinders or presentist lenses, the charge doesn’t hold up. Indeed, it says more about today’s political culture, which has grown unusually high-minded, and the emotions that Americans invest in presidential elections, which are unfailingly intense, than it does about McCain himself.
A cursory familiarity with 19th-century history dispels any illusions that today’s campaigns, or candidates, are nastier than they used to be. As historian Gil Troy wrote in See How They Ran, the first presidential races—those of 1796 and 1800, which pitted John Adams against Thomas Jefferson—generated slanders on both sides worse than we hear today. Jefferson’s surrogates painted Adams as a monarchist, warning that he was going to create a dynasty by marrying his son to King George’s daughter. Adams’s advocates called the author of the Declaration of Independence a traitor and agent of the French Revolution, and accused him of raping his slave mistress. (Jefferson’s liaisons with Sally Hemings have since been accepted by most historians). Abigail Adams despaired that all the “abuse and scandal” would “ruin and corrupt the minds and morals of the best people in the world.”
During the age of democracy in the 1830s, politics got only uglier. Newspapers, making no secret of their partisan allegiances, happily vilified the opposition in personal terms. Rivals branded Andrew Jackson an adulterer, his wife a bigamist, and his mother a prostitute. The most infamous contest of the century might have been the mud fight of 1884, when a well-known minister, sharing a stage with Republican nominee James Blaine, labeled the Democrats the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion”—a slur on immigrants, Catholics, and Southerners that Democrats forced Blaine to repudiate. The Republicans also attacked the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, for fathering an illegitimate child—a charge immortalized in the taunt, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”
The push for Blaine to disavow his supporter’s well-publicized slur bespoke a growing concern with cleaning up politics. Late in the 19th century, middle-class reformers tried to purge democracy of its seamy underside, introducing voting reforms like the secret ballot and striving to elevate the tone of campaigns. “To elect their own rulers is, indeed, a great privilege,” wrote the New York Evening Post in 1872. “But the principles and methods by which they have come to select them for election are execrable.”
The political reformers of the Progressive Era muted the crude personal invective that had once been commonplace, to say nothing of the formerly widespread practice of buying and stealing votes. But politics and human nature being what they are, no one devised a way to eliminate meanness. The 20th century saw plenty of below-the-belt campaigning, including many races much uglier than this year’s. A quick rundown of the lowlights would have to include the Republicans’$2 1928 slurs against Al Smith, the first Catholic major-party nominee, pilloried as an agent of the pope; the Democrats’$2 1964 campaign against Republican Barry Goldwater, to whom neo-Nazi ties were imputed; Jimmy Carter’s 1980 insinuations that Ronald Reagan was a reckless warmonger; George Bush Sr.’s use of the Pledge of Allegiance and prison-furlough issues against Michael Dukakis in 1988; Bush’s claims in 1992 that Bill Clinton committed near-traitorous acts by protesting the Vietnam War while in England; and—how soon we forget—the Swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004.
If those examples don’t put McCain’s in perspective, consider that they were all rhetorical attacks. Even worse were Nixon’s dirty tricks-filled efforts of 1968 and 1972 and George W. Bush’s resort to mob violence to stop the 2000 Florida recount. Indeed, McCain’s campaign probably wasn’t even the dirtiest of 2008—a prize that belongs, arguably, to Obama himself for ascribing racism to Bill and Hillary Clinton in the days between the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.
Compared with the foregoing, McCain’s slaps at Obama seemed more pathetic and desperate than vicious. His atavistic broadsides against “socialism” rang hollow. Ads about Obama’s loose links to a Palestinian-American scholar and to a domestic terrorist whose name few Americans knew fell flat. Cheeky digs at Obama’s celebrity status provoked more mirth than ire. McCain’s ugliest tactic was to revive an old slur that Obama backed sex education for kindergarteners, but it met with such ferocious rebuke that it was rapidly withdrawn and forgotten. Against these negative themes, too, must be counterbalanced McCain’s admirable stands, as when he fired staffers who stoked racism or anti-Muslim sentiments and rebuked his own hate-spewing supporters at rallies.
The claims about McCain’s supposedly unprecedented negativity, then, don’t signify any deep truth about his character. Rather, they reveal important aspects of American politics today. The efforts to purify politics at the turn of the last century may not have succeeded in eliminating negativity, but they did erect new norms that stigmatized ungentlemanly campaign tactics—norms that remain powerful. When candidates go negative, they almost always draw scorn from the news media and often hurt their own campaigns more than they help. When McCain went after his opponent, this powerful disdain for negative campaigning kicked in, bringing out all our censoriousness.
The scorn for going negative, moreover, has been especially acute among reformist high-minded liberals in the tradition that runs from Adlai Stevenson to Eugene McCarthy to Obama—men whose successes rested on their supporters’ wish for a politics free of the compromises and rough-and-tumble inherent in democracy. By introducing his campaign in a Stevensonian vein, Obama fashioned an image as one who would never initiate attacks. Remarkably, and much to his credit, Obama sustained that image throughout the campaign, even during those moments in August when, flagging in the polls, he acceded to his supporters’ calls to hit harder against McCain or, the previous fall, against Hillary Clinton.
The hyperbole about McCain’s tone also stems from the human tendency to try to explain away electoral losses. In any election, the defeated are naturally loath to concede that the other side’s platform or candidate was more appealing. Instead, we tend to ascribe to the other side an extreme skill in black arts—whether dangerously persuasive rhetoric, election stealing, or the evil genius of a Lee Atwater or a Karl Rove. Although Obama was in little danger of losing the election following the mid-September financial meltdown, his supporters, having seen two presidential victories slip through their grasp, couldn’t quite shake the notion that the Democrats were vulnerable, and they grabbed onto these time-honored rationalizations.
Finally, the protectiveness that Obama elicited from others also explains why McCain’s fall campaigning was reviewed so harshly. Throughout the year, Obama was often spared the task of defending himself because others with prominent media platforms did it for him. As the campaign progressed, a whole slate of possible criticisms—including legitimate concerns about his record or his foreign-policy chops—were deemed, as if by cultural consensus, beyond the pale. Indeed, it’s worth recalling that October’s hyperbolic claims about McCain’s negativity echo similar (and similarly unfounded) claims about Clinton’s campaigning back in the spring. Does Obama somehow invite historically unprecedented negativity? Or are his enthusiasts just unusually quick to perceive it? In any event, Obama benefited more from labeling his rivals as uniquely sleazy than he suffered from whatever sleaziness they displayed.
Obama fully deserved to defeat McCain on Tuesday. But he deserved to win because his party and his program presented the better hope for a better America, and not because he is purer of heart than other politicians—or any less able to throw a punch when his political future demands it. Like all good politicians, Obama appears to understand this important distinction. The rest of us should, too.