Past Presidential Elections Far Nastier

Presidential candidates Sen. John Mccain and Sen. Barack Obama have both been accused of political flip-flopping. (Image credit: AP Photo)

The 2008 campaign for president was the most vicious in U.S. history, some pundits have said. There were certainly some cheap-shot moments here and there but, relatively speaking, was the 2008 race really that nasty?

Not at all, compared to labels like "jackass" and "hermaphroditical" tossed around during presidential elections back in the day.

"2008 was downright mild," compared to some of the tactics employed in the past, said Gil Troy, professor of U.S. History at McGill University in Montreal. Mudslinging is certainly not a new approach in politics, historians agree. Opposing candidates have been tearing each other down since 1789, when George Washington was the first, and last, president to win an election by a unanimous electoral decision.

Forefathers could be cutthroat

There's just no avoiding the more malevolent side of politics during presidential elections in the United States.

"Elections have frequently been intense dust ups — American politics is rough and tumble," said Troy. This year's election wasn't free of controversy, but both Democrats and Republicans were tame in their approach, said Troy, who noted that race played a part in keeping things relatively high-brow.

"John McCain to his credit refused to raise the Jeremiah Wright issue, because he feared making racial waves. Barack Obama very cleverly deemed every attack against him, no matter how mild, a smear, and this helped put the Republicans on the defensive and raise the bar," Troy said.

While Obama and McCain's attacks tended to be ideological in nature, past presidential candidates have barely hid their personal disdain for each other. Slander became the campaign precedent as early as 1800, when incumbent president John Adams ran against his vice-president Thomas Jefferson. The duo, who'd worked together on claiming independence for America in 1776, were now bitter rivals and traded slurs that would put today's genteel candidates to shame. Jefferson's side started by calling Adams a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Adams supporters responded by labeling Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."

And the vitriol has continued unabated:

  • In 1828 Andrew Jackson's wife — who had, shockingly for the time, been divorced — was called all sorts of lewd names by his opponents (they also called Jackson a jackass). In retaliation, Jackson claimed that incumbent John Quincy Adams had once tried to offer his maid as a concubine to Russian Czar Alexander I.
  • 1964 pitted sitting president Lyndon Johnson against Republican Barry Goldwater and is considered one of the nastiest of the last century. Johnson systematically destroyed Goldwater's character with the help of an "after-hours" smear team. It worked — Johnson won one of the most lopsided elections in U.S. history.
  • In 2004, the "Swiftboat" smears against John Kerry, which questioned Kerry's military service record during the Vietnam War, were much dirtier than anything that happened in 2008, Troy said.

Golden Age of politics never existed

The forefathers may have been just as sneaky as today's campaign managers, Troy said, but that doesn't prevent people from believing that modern politicians are more cutthroat. The penchant to view the most recent election as the nastiest, hardest-fought contest is a natural one, historians say.

"Americans are always searching for the golden age in the past, which I believe never existed," said Troy. There is also a reason why politicians keep up the devilish deeds time after time. People have a tendency to forgive and forget even the worst offenders by the time the next election roll around, Troy said. "[During] each campaign we idealize the previous ones and express deep disappointment with the [candidates] we have to choose from and the methods they use," he said, "not realizing that the reason why they use those methods is because the harsh tactics work on us!"

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.