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Sidewalks with Tom Deignan
What a Positive Campaign It’s Been
November 5, 2008
Sidewalks by Tom Deignan
NOW that it is all said and done, many people seem happy to agree that this presidential race may have been historic, but it was also one of the nastiest, dirtiest campaigns in U.S. history.
After all, surely you heard those rumors that John McCain once was a pimp, a corrupter of women. While serving abroad, McCain charmed a young, impressionable nurse into serving as a mistress for a high-powered head of state. McCain, of course, was given political favors in exchange for the sexual services he provided.
If you have not yet heard this rumor, even in the looniest outposts of the Internet, it’s because that rumor did not concern a presidential candidate from 2008, but instead a presidential candidate from a mere 180 years ago — when, it should be noted, a son of Irish immigrants ran for and won the presidency.
Another thing worth thinking about is the number of people maimed or murdered on Election Day. I’m typing this Tuesday morning, before we know who wins or loses, before we know of any violence at the polls. But if recent elections are any indication, no one at all will be injured while trying to vote.
That was not the case throughout the 19th century, when bloody mayhem at the polls was far from shocking.
During a New York City election in 1834, for example, when the two political parties in New York were the Democrats and Whigs, “a mob of a hundred or so Democrats…invaded the Whigs’ Sixth Ward committee rooms, tore down banners, destroyed Whig ballots, and assaulted those Whigs present,” as Tyler Anbinder writes in his excellent book Five Points.
Democrats, however, charged that it was the Whigs who woke up on Election Day looking for a fight, vowing to “keep those damned Irishmen in order.”
Now that’s what I call dirty politics!
A few years later, again in the Sixth Ward on Election Day, “the Irish got the worst of if from the Americans,” the New York Herald reported. Police officers ended up making mass arrests “most of them Irishmen,” many of whom “were so beaten about the head that they could not be recognized as human beings,” according to Anbinder.
Given all of this, you’ll have to forgive me for nearly laughing at observers such as Colbert King, who last week wrote a column with the ominous headline “A Dangerous New Low in American Politics.”
Of course, there have been some shameful moments on the campaign trail, and King outlines them. There was the crowd yelling ugly words about murder and terrorists at a Sarah Palin rally last month.
A recent New Yorker magazine article, meanwhile, ventured into rural precincts in Ohio and found clear and very disturbing evidence of rabid racism against Obama.
But by and large, most evidence of Americans reaching a “new low” in 2008 swiftly blends into the kind of mild paranoia and blind partisanship you get not just on any Election Day, but any time you walk into a pub and start talking politics.
Unpleasant stuff, for sure. As is the persistent smear tactic suggesting that Barack Obama is some kind of closet Muslim.
But a “new low”? Well, it may be low, but it ain’t new!
That’s clear if you pick up a timely new book entitled Waking Giant: American in the Age of Jackson by David S. Reynolds (Harper).
Andrew Jackson’s parents were Scotch-Irish immigrants, and he (not JFK or Al Smith or Obama) was the first “outsider” to run for president.
He was born in the backwoods of South Carolina. Previous presidents were more or less from well-to-do families, so Jackson’s humble roots concerned many.
Given Obama’s candidacy, one particular smear against Jackson is relevant. It was “reported” that his Irish mother had once, in fact, been “a common prostitute” who later married “a Mulatto (that is, mixed race) man, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson as one.”
Just 40 or so years ago, when the struggle over civil rights raged at the voting booth, blood still flowed on Election Day. That was also when Lyndon Johnson’s famous TV commercial suggested that a vote for his opponent Barry Goldwater would lead to nuclear war.
So, now that the election is over, let’s take a moment to, yes, hope that the tone of campaigns and elections improves.
But let’s also acknowledge how far we’ve come, how very civil this campaign actually was.
(Contact Sidewalks at email@example.com)
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