“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” — Sen. Lloyd Bensten (1988)
I long for the days when the quote above was the nastiest personal insult ever hurled at a candidate during a televised national debate. Senator Dan Quayle was running for vice president against Senator Lloyd Bentsen and was stating he wasn’t too young for the job. “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency,” said Quayle, which was followed by Bentsen’s hard-hitting put-down.
Bensten’s put-down doesn’t come close to the insults hurled by the Republican candidates for president in 2016. This campaign has sunk so deeply into schoolboy bullying it’s truly horrifying. Up until now, our modern presidential campaigns have been reasonably civil and focused on avoiding potential public relations pitfalls.
However, this isn’t the first-ever nasty presidential campaign. In 1928, Republicans started a rumor that candidate Al Smith, a Catholic, was planning a secret tunnel from Manhattan to the Vatican, and the Pope would have say in all matters should Smith be elected president. Before Donald Trump called his opponent “Little Mario” there was “Little Giant,” Abe Lincoln’s reference to his 1860 rival Stephen Douglas’ height. At 5’4″, others called Douglas “about five feet nothing in height and about the same in diameter.” Douglas struck back, calling Lincoln a “horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect,” and “the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs and arms and hatchet face ever strung on a single frame.”
In 1828, opposition Federalists called Andrew Jackson’s previously divorced wife–a major taboo back then– a “dirty black wench,” a “convicted adulteress” and said she was prone to “open and notorious lewdness.” And in America’s second-ever presidential election, candidate Thomas Jefferson hired a writer to smear President John Adams, who was referred to as “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
We shouldn’t take comfort in these examples. The current candidates’ presidential vitriol goes beyond anything before it. Decorum, class, and attention to thoughtful communication strategy is, sadly, missing from the GOP primaries. Let’s hope it doesn’t continue. Your thoughts?