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Courtesy And Calumny

July 2024
2min read

The candidates are all in the field now, and you couldn’t find a nicer bunch of people. They admire each other with an openness of heart verging on reverence, and only the exigencies of the present hour could have forced them into the position of vying with their good friends for the Presidency.

Television has a good deal to do with this numbing, faintly surreal politeness; the camera is said to transform even mild pique into something approaching hysteria. Then, too, many candidates are veterans of the cloistered life of Capitol Hill, where, until an office holder is actually incarcerated, he remains an “honorable gentleman.”

But whatever the reason—and whatever he may think of his opponents in private—anyone who runs for anything nowadays wants to appear guilelessly sweet natured. It was not always that way. Take, for instance, William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 campaign, whose course is traced in the article by Louis W. Koenig beginning on page four. The opposition painted Bryan—who, after all, championed the values of rural democracy all his life—as a raving lunatic dead set on smearing the White House with the bloody hands of anarchy.

In fact, our ancestors seem to have liked nothing better than vitriolic, abusive, intensely personal politics. Even the greatest statesmen delighted in it. Thomas Jefferson, according to John Adams, had “a mind, soured, yet seeking for popularity, and eaten to a honeycomb with ambition, yet weak, confused, uninformed, and ignorant.” And look at Alexander Hamilton, Adams went on to suggest, “the profligacy of his life; his fornications, adulteries and his incests.” And Benjamin Franklin, whose “whole life has been one continued insult to good manners and to decency. …”

Adams’ son John Quincy apparently inherited some of his father’s bile. On the House floor, he damned “the gigantic intellect, the envious temper, the ravenous ambition and the rotten heart of Daniel Webster. …”

Everyone could take part. In 1840 an all-but-unknown Pennsylvania representative named Charles Ogle spent a full day sharing with the House his thoughts on Martin Van Buren. He accused the President of every sort of profligacy and extravagance, backing up his sallies with interminable citations from bills for gold spoons, hundreds of yards of silk, “ ORNAMENTAL RAYS over the door” ($25), and a hundred other luxuries supposedly ordered by Van Buren to transform the White House into a palace befitting an Oriental despot. “What,” demanded Ogle, “will the honest locofoco say to Mr. Van Buren for spending the People’s cash in FOREIGN FANNY KEMBLE GREEN FINGER CUPS , in which to wash his pretty, tapering, soft, white, lily fingers after dining on … omelet soufflé?” Ogle’s ultimate charge (and one that his listeners could have seen was fraudulent by glancing out the window) had Van Buren ordering built upon the White House grounds “undulations … a number of clever sizd hills, every pair of which … was designed to resemble … AN AMAZON’S BOSOM , with a miniature knoll or hillock on its apex, to denote the n—pie.” Van Buren’s dignified refusal to answer the absurd allegations helped lose him his job.

Though it would be foolish to call for a return to this sort of obfuscatory savagery, it did add a measure of personal forthrightness to the proceedings. And, too, with its passing, a certain gritty poetry went out of our political life. Consider John Randolph of Virginia turning on Edward Livingston of New York with deadly fluency: “He is a man of splendid abilities, but utterly corrupt. Like rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks.”

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