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Milt Hankins: Mud-slinging carries a long, nasty history

Apr. 26, 2013 @ 12:03 AM

Before we know it another campaign season will be under way. Some would say it's already here, particularly in Kentucky where Democrats are desperately seeking a viable candidate to take on Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell. I'm already seeing bumper stickers that read "Ditch Mitch!" Which brings me to "mud-slinging," and the unsavory side of politics.

Recently, I read an article suggesting that negative campaigning in presidential elections originated with the Goldwater-Johnson campaign of 1964. Perhaps that's true in the modern era, but a quick review of American politics led me to conclude that modern mud-slinging is gentle compared with the nasty invective of days gone by.

Mud-slinging in American presidential politics goes all the way back to 1803 when "founding fathers" Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the incumbent, squared off in the first election that saw the rise of political entities and enmities. Adams, like his predecessor George Washington, was a Federalist; Jefferson was what was referred to back then as a Democrat-Republican.

According to historians, the campaign turned ugly quickly, as Jefferson's associates (Jefferson, himself, felt he was above campaigning) called Adams a "blind, bald, crippled, toothless man" who "is a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Adams countered by calling Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."

And this was only the beginning! The campaign severed the last filament of friendship between the two, and it was years before they again communicated civilly with each other. Adams left town before dawn the day of Jefferson's inauguration, and as far as I know, they never saw each other again. They died the same day -- July 4, 1826 -- the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Adams' last words were "Jefferson still lives." He did not know his friend (by this time, through correspondence) had died earlier that morning.

Other campaigns throughout our history have been equally vicious from the lowest- to the highest- level politicians.

One needs not dig deeply or go that far back into senatorial campaigns to find a spicy one. In 2008, Norm Coleman and Al Franken went head to head in Minnesota. In one of Coleman's ads, he had this to say about Franken: "The guys and I have been talking. We've read all this stuff about Al Franken: Not paying taxes. Going without insurance for his employees. Foul-mouthed attacks on anyone he disagrees with. Tasteless, sexist jokes. Writing all that juicy porn. And we've decided we're running for U.S. Senate. Why not? We're just as qualified as Al Franken, and we're better bowlers."

Franken countered with "the same old Washington smear politics designed to distract from (Coleman's) awful record of selling out Minnesota families to George W. Bush and the special interests." After a protracted recount, Franken won.

We Kentuckians would have especially relished a hardy campaign between Ashley Judd and Mitch McConnell -- Beauty and the Beast!

Milt Hankins of Ashland, Ky., is a retired minister, theologian and freelance writer.

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