The Wimp Factor

A year ago we were in the midst of a presidential campaign most memorable for charges by both sides that the opponent was not hard enough, tough enough, masculine enough. That he was, in fact, a sissy. Both sides also admitted this sort of rhetoric was deplorable. But it’s been going on since the beginning of the Republic.

Just before George Bush announced his running mate in 1988, a one-liner going the rounds was that he should choose Jeane Kirkpatrick to add some machismo to the ticket. Until midway through the campaign the embarrassing “fact” about Bush, as revealed in a spate of jokes, cartoons, and anecdotes gleefully reported or generated by the press, was the candidate’s “wimpiness.” A wimp, of course, is effete, ineffectual, somehow unmanly. Real men, the diametrical opposite of wimps, are war heroes and government leaders, especially combat pilots and spy masters. But wait!Read more »

How We Got Lincoln

Every presidential election is exciting when it happens. Then the passing of time usually makes the outcome seem less than crucial. But after more than a century and a quarter, the election of 1860 retains its terrible urgency.

In the crowded months between the beginning of the 1860 presidential campaign and the attack on Fort Sumter, it is easy now to see the emergence of Abraham Lincoln as something preordained, as though the issues had manufactured a figure commensurate with their importance. Or at the least, one might imagine a dramatic, hard-fought campaign with Northern and Southern states rallying around their respective candidates. But that’s not quite how it happened. Read more »

How Media Politics Was Born

To keep Upton Sinclair from becoming governor of California in 1934, his opponents invented a whole new kind of campaign

The American political campaign as we know it today was born on August 28, 1934, when Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author and lifelong socialist, won the Democratic primary for governor of California. Sinclair’s landslide primary victory left his opponents with only ten weeks until election day to turn back one of the strongest mass movements in the nation’s history.Read more »

Sexual Complications of the Presidential Kind

Did you know that John Quincy Adams pimped for the czar Alexander I of Russia while he was serving as the American minister in St. Petersburg? Some journalists claimed to know that fact during the notably scurrilous campaign of 1824. But historians have tended to remember the even more foul allegations brought against Andrew Jackson by an unscrupulous journalist, Charles Hammond, since there was a kernel of truth in the stream of filth directed at Jackson.

How Pure Must Our Candidates Be?

The distasteful questions we ask our presidential hopefuls serve a real purpose

Has the press gone too far?” is a question that has been asked more frequently in this presidential campaign than any other. At a time when politicians are being canvassed on their love lives, their acquaintance with marijuana, and the originality of all their sayings, the question seems to answer itself. The “character issue” has become, in many people’s eyes, a hunting license. The prey are intimidated even when they are not eliminated, made to seem vulnerable, “on the run” instead of running for office.Read more »

The Last Real Presidential Debate

It took place in 1948, and it was orchestrated—with difficulty—by the program director of a faltering Portland, Oregon, radio station. He persuaded two Republican candidates to argue formally about an actual issue with no intervening moderator.

In October 1984 President Ronald Reagan and Sen. Walter F. Mondale came together on the same platform in Louisville, Kentucky, and again in Kansas City, Missouri. Correspondents tossed questions at them; each answered. Then instant analysts got busy determining a winner and speculating about what effect, if any, the confrontations would have on the November election. And everybody referred to the meetings as “debates.” They weren’t debates. Read more »

Four More Years

Here is how political cartoonists have sized up the candidates over a tumultuous half-century.

AMERICANS HAVE BEEN turning out political cartoons since the dawn of the Republic, but in the nineteenth century the drawings tended to be verbose and cluttered, their characters trailing long ribbons of speech balloons as they stumbled over obscure symbols. It took the national turmoil that surrounded the emergence of Franklin Roosevelt to bring the art to its incisive, confident, acid maturity. On the eve of the election, we offer a portfolio of cartoons both admiring and execrating from the last thirteen presidential contests.Read more »

How To Be First Lady

The ground rules have changed drastically since 1789. Abigail Adams, stifled in her time, would have loved being First Lady today.

ONCE AGAIN the candidates gear up for a national election; not only the candidates but their wives too. And pity the ladies! Their husbands run against different opponents; they, for nearly forty years, have had to measure up to one woman—Eleanor Roosevelt. Read more »

How The Media Seduced And Captured American Politics

A noted historian argues that television, a relative newcomer, has nearly destroyed old—and valuable—political traditions

TELEVISION HAS BEEN accused of many things: vulgarizing tastes; trivializing public affairs; sensationalizing news; corrupting the young; pandering to profits; undermining traditional values. The indictments are no doubt too harsh, and they ignore the medium’s considerable achievements over two decades. Yet even the severest critics have not noticed the way in which television first seduced and then captured the whole American political process. Read more »

The First Hurrah

Presidential candidates stayed above the battle until William Jennings Bryan stumped the nation in 1896; they’ve been in the thick of it ever since

The most confident prediction that can be made about the 1980 presidential campaign is that the nominees will invest enormous energy, time, and money in stumping the country.Read more »