Retorts: Welcome to the 2018 Mud Bowl

A POLITICAL cartoon from 1884 taunts Democratic presidential candidate for having fathered a child out of wedlock (Smithsonian Institution).

It is the last month before election day. It’s likely that your mailbox is filling up with mud. That’s mud of the political, not geological kind.

In many campaigns from local city council all the way up to U.S. Senate and governor, the wet stuff is flying in all directions.

This has been a tradition since the Founding Fathers first cobbled together the Constitution. As soon as the universally revered George Washington stepped down after two terms, the two major political factions began insulting, demonizing and generally lying and exaggerating about The Other Guys.

Why, we may ask, have we not evolved past that, more than 200 years later? Why? Because it works.

We get mailers from the many folks running for office. To summarize and paraphrase, each candidate is depicted by the other as the delinquent nephew or niece of Beelzebub. You can find several examples each day, and more as we approach The Big Day.

The granddaddy of all really muddy political campaigns came in 1884, when Democrat Grover Cleveland faced off against Republican James G. Blaine for the White House. The Democrats hadn’t won since 1856 and were desperate for a victory. The GOP was just as desperate to hang on to what they had.

Each had a skeleton in the closet. Cleveland, in his youth, had fathered a child out of wedlock. Blaine had been involved in a shady railroad and real estate deal. So they began to toss their clods.

Republicans chanted “Ma! Ma! Where’s My Pa?” The Democrats responded with “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha Ha!” They had their own slogan for the opposition candidate: “James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.”

It was a dirty and close election, and was likely decided just a few days before ballots were cast. At a campaign rally in New York, Blaine sat silent on the dais while another speaker said “We are Republicans, and do not chose to identify with those whose antecedents have always been rum, Romanism and rebellion.”

Translation: The Democrats are a mix of drunks, Catholics and Confederate sympathizers.

Now, of course, Blaine hadn’t said any of this, but he didn’t speak up and disavow it. He may have been asleep. But a reporter from the Democratic-leaning New York World reported it, and in such a way to suggest that Blaine disliked and disrespected Catholics.

The key state was New York and the key area of the state was New York City (along the Brooklyn, which was not officially yet part of NYC), stuffed to the bridges with Irish, Italians, Poles and others who embraced the Roman faith.

The Big Apple went heavily for Cleveland, thus tipping New York state into the Democratic column. Both sides, it seemed, slung mud with great enthusiasm, but the Democrats – in 1884 – did it better and with superior timing.

I deeply dislike this kind of campaigning. It’s fundamentally dishonest and unfair. It also appears to be, as has been said, “as American as apple pie.”

Lyndon Johnson – himself no piker when it came to dirty deeds – once complained that “liberals don’t know how to win,” which could explain – in part – why The Other Team has control of Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court.

The study of history shows us that no party, creed or philosophy – as actually practiced in the real world – is totally devoid of error. I submit that our votes should not just be a matter of being loyal to party, or a candidate, or any other personality or grouping, or the biggest fib. It should chiefly be a matter of being loyal to the truth, which – on Election Day – means being loyal to democracy and the nation.

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is posted on or about Wednesday on alternate weeks. And he knows this plea for a clean election campaign – in this or any other even-numbered year – will have much effect as acorns thrown at a locomotive. But vote anyway. A flawed democracy is better than no democracy at all.

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