When was the last time a presidential race wasn't called "the most crucial," "critical" or "important" in American history? And when was the last time a presidential election cycle wasn't labeled "the dirtiest" or "sleaziest" of all time? If memory serves, the last time was 2004. And before that was 2000. And before that was undoubtedly 1996.
Heck, probably the only campaign that wasn't considered either "the most crucial" or "the dirtiest" of all time was back in 1788, when George Washington faced only the nominal opposition of John Adams, who was really running for Vice President anyway. [Back then, who ever came in second automatically became V.P.]
Truth to tell, every since then, American presidential races have been filled with charges and counter-charges, tepid half-truths, hi-jinks and the sinking feeling that if one's candidate is defeated, the country will undoubtedly go to hell in a hand basket. In other words, Koheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes was absolutely correct: "There is nothing new under the sun."
In the first truly contested presidential race -- between Adams and Jefferson in 1800 -- the Adams-backed Federalists accused Republican Thomas Jefferson of everything from bilking creditors and business partners to being an abject coward. Adams' operatives called Old Tom a "howling atheist," and claimed that if elected, he would confiscate and burn all the Bibles in America. Even worse, the Adams crowd warned voters that a President Jefferson would burn down all the churches, put an end to the institution of marriage and clap the country's women into bordellos.
Things were even nastier in the 1828 race when President John Quincy Adams ran against Andy Jackson. Adams' acolytes claimed Jackson was an adulterer, a liar, a bigamist, and a murderous drunk who gambled on cockfights. They even went so far as to publish a broadside elucidating Jackson's many brawls and duels, during which, they claimed, he "killed, slashed and clawed various American citizens." Not to be outdone, Jackson partisans struck back, calling Adams an elitist tyrant who lived in a "presidential palace" in "kingly pomp and splendor." They further charged that he traveled on Sunday instead of going to church, and had had premarital sex with wife Louisa.
Not even Abraham Lincoln was spared the brush of derision; he was variously labeled a "fiend," "butcher," and just plain "Ignoramus Abe." Oh yes, he was also accused by his opponent, Stephen Douglas, of being totally without experience. [Lincoln had served but one two-year term in the House a full fourteen years before running for President.]
Then there was the presidential race of 1884, in which James G. Blaine accused Grover Cleveland of having sired an illegitimate child ["Ma, ma, where's Pa"/He's gone to the White House, ha-ha-ha!"] The Cleveland camp responded in kind, tagging their "unworthy" opponent, James G. Blaine, the "continental liar from the state of Maine."
One of my favorites goes back to the 1968 presidential tilt between Nixon and Humphrey. In that race, Dick Tuck, the "clown prince" of political dirty tricks, lined up a couple of dozen obviously pregnant women at a railroad siding, all holding aloft signs which proclaimed "NIXON'S THE ONE!!"
You've got to admit, Presidential campaigns are never boring.
Which brings us to 2008.
Unless conservative Republicans somehow manage to raise the ghost of Ronald Reagan or Robert Taft, John McCain will be their standard bearer. And unless something totally unforeseen -- and completely unpredictable -- occurs, Barack Obama will head the Democratic ticket. [Indeed, in the latter case, the big news wouldn't be Hillary Clinton winning the nomination, but rather Obama losing.]
Will an Obama/McCain race be the dirtiest of all time? And more importantly, is it the most crucial in all American history? The answer to the first is "probably not;" to the second, "it just might be."
We've already seen and heard innumerable sleaze shots firing across the bow of Senator Obama's ship of state. The latest came not from the mouth of Senator McCain, but rather from a surrogate, Cincinnati radio-talk show host Bill Cunningham. In a "throw red meat to the lions" warm up prior to a McCain appearance in the Queen City, Cunningham repeatedly -- and monotonously -- used the "H" word, Senator Obama's middle name.
And of course, there are all those charges about Obama being a Muslim sleeper that just won't go away. For his part, Senator Obama has remained remarkably diplomatic and dignified. The man seems rather unflappable. When Senator McCain tried to take the Illinois senator "to school" over his comment about al-Qaeda in Iraq, Obama responded not with irritation, but with irony. And have you noticed that whenever Senator Obama is about to speak about his Republican rival, he prefaces his remarks with acknowledgment and veneration for McCain's war record?
But what about the importance of the 2008 race? Is it the "most crucial," the "most important" in a long, long time? As we noted above, it just might be. Throughout American history, certain elections have presented watershed moments; distinct opportunities to counter an increasingly stale past with a progressive vision of the future. This has been especially true when either:
1. The two major candidates represent different generations, or
2. One candidate is decidedly younger than the man he is seeking to replace. A couple of facts:
* Of the 56 presidential campaigns between 1788 and 2008, the younger candidate has won 37.5% of the time.
* In five races between 1788 and 2004, one candidate was old enough to be the other's father.
* In three of those five, the "son" defeated the "father." [Pierce v. Scott in 1852, Clinton v. Bush in 1992, and Clinton v. Dole in 1996.]
The first time two candidates representing different generations squared off was in 1836. In that race, Martin Van Buren faced the much-older William Henry Harrison. Van Buren won, thereby becoming the nation's first post-colonial born president.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy became the first president who was born in the 20th century. Kennedy's youth, charm and "viga" were bipolar opposites of the avuncular Dwight Eisenhower, the man he would replace. Moreover, being nearly 30 years younger [27, to be precise] than Ike, Kennedy attracted the votes of a generation just entering the political process.
John McCain is 27 years older than Barack Obama. Never before has one candidate been so much older than his opponent. [The next closest would be Buchanan v. Fremont in 1856; the victorious Buchanan was 22 years older than Fremont.] Far more important than this statistical anomaly however, is the fact that Senator Obama represents -- and is giving voice to -- a potentially new, previously untapped slice of the American electorate. He has managed to raise more money -- and from more of the so-called "little people" -- than any candidate in history. And while many belittle his message of hope, calling it "full of sound and fury signifying nothing," he has managed to touch a yearning nerve. For countless millions, "the politics of hope" trounces the politics of fear.
Over the past five-plus years, America has become mired in an endless war. We are in intractable debt. Our civil liberties are being stripped away in the name of security. America's reputation in the community of nations is about as low as the value of the dollar. Both home foreclosures and the price of gas are at an all-time high. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our borders are porous. The Lady With the Lamp has seen her torch go out. The national treasury has become the personal vault of the "haves" and "have mores." The president has become a caricature. We are all but rudderless.
And yet, despite all of the above, the party of John McCain still argues about cutting taxes, codifying marriage, and crediting creationism. These so-called "wedge issues" -- and a host of others -- are the politics of America's ancien regime.
Weigh all this against the hopefulness of the Obama campaign. It represents a generational change. It is a message that reaching out to one's adversaries -- whether on Capitol Hill or abroad -- is worth a try. It is a call to our "higher angels" It can be a new beginning.
Indeed, it is a race unlike any other.
©2008 Kurt F. Stone
Note: In last week's piece, "The Truth About IT," I wrote that the Anti-Defamation League [ADL] "has found no evidence of anti-Semitism by Reverend Wright . . . did not support Reverend Farrakhan." I was quoting a profile on Reverend Wright written by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor; it ran on April 30, 2007. There is a possibility that Ms. Kantor's contention is incorrect. I am attempting to determine the truth of the matter. If I have erred, I apologize. KFS