American politics have always been mean and nasty, but we’ve reached an era where the ad hominem attack has become the dive run of politics. It’s mainstream, and it’s been on display in the last Republican presidential debates. Texas Gov. Rick Perry took after former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney like a classic schoolyard bully
.Perry repeatedly cast the debate rules aside so he could land the blows he wanted — most notably when he turned directly to his rival and bluntly declared that Romney had hired “illegals” to work on his home.Romney, who’s been so smooth in the rest of the debates, committed a handful of unforced errors in which he looked too calculating — the sin he is most frequently accused of. The former Massachusetts governor denied employing illegal immigrants at first — technically true — but then delivered this line in explaining what he said to the company who employed them at his home: “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.”He was visibly flustered when Perry interrupted him during the exchange, coming close to losing his temper at one point.
For those of us who’ve seen the sausage made, witnessing that sort of behavior makes you feel ill. Those weren’t fictional characters from a lost “The West Wing
” episode, they’re real people, with real families and real lives. But since Ed Muskie’s tearing up in New Hampshire
, showing your humanity has become a political negative.Afterward, it can be hard to forgive. But that’s what Liz Patterson did when Bob Inglis owned up for the vicious 1992 congressional campaign. As reported in Monday’s The Herald-Journal
, “Patterson said she knew that Inglis himself did not generate most of the negative attacks, but said he was responsible for what his campaign had produced.”In the piece, Inglis said that after he arrived in D.C., he felt shamed after attending a Bible study meeting. His aggressive U.S. Senate campaign
against Fritz Hollings six years later says different, but it’s clear Inglis is working on becoming a better person.With a number of elected officials turning over their entire public persona to staffers and consultants, these situations can only become more likely. After all, it’s a lot easier to be vicious when you don’t have to meet the target face-to-face. The attitude can be summed up in a quote from Ollie North’s lead consultant in the ’94 Virginia Senate race: “Next time around, I cut the guy’s balls off.” Chuck Robb, who lost his next bid to George Allen, is a former Marine with a Bronze Star from two tours in Vietnam. No matter. He was the enemy.The standard was set. Issues matter only in as much as they can be used as wedge issues, with no respect to facts, intellectual honesty or the lives of who could be harmed. In a disturbing development, the body politic’s sickness went viral, infecting the world outside campaigns.
But maybe it was always thus. A message board poster on National Review Online this summer pointed to a story about the founding of Trinity College in D.C. Catholic University fought it, to a point. Apparently, American Political Culture doesn’t own the exclusive rights to “Nastiness”.
Soon the fledgling project was surrounded by rumor and innuendo. Joseph Schroeder, a professor of dogmatic theology at Catholic, relayed his objections to allies in the Vatican and began publishing broadsides in conservative newspapers. “We cannot discern any advantage gained by this newfangled rise of the New Woman,” he wrote. Fending off the anti-Trinity campaign fell to Euphrasia, a tireless networker, promoter, and fund-raiser who might have been a star in the university development world had she lived in a different time.
The face-off was dubbed by some the “War of 1897.” Catholic newspapers up and down the East Coast ran stories about the controversy. “The project of a University for the weaker sex,” said one pointed inquiry from Rome, “has made a disagreeable impression here.” Finally Sister Euphrasia determined to speak with the archbishop himself, who had fled the stifling summer heat for Atlantic City. . . . The archbishop was impressed by their case and their determination, and his support helped tip the battle in Trinity’s favor. (It didn’t hurt that the college’s supporters began pointing to their opponent Schroeder’s weakness for all-night sojourns in disreputable saloons.) By December the war had subsided. Trinity College enrolled its first students on November 3, 1900.
More than 100 years ago, even religious educators resorted to harming another person’s reputation, if it stood in the way of their objective. But, they didn’t set out to ground him into the earth — they exhibited some self-control.
Maybe if there was a little more restraint showed by campaigns and staff, from top to bottom, we’d all be better off.
J.L. Mann Cromer, Jr. is a General Practice Attorney in Columbia, South Carolina, concentrating in Probate & Estate Planning, Criminal Defense and Personal Injury Law.
with Wes Wolfe. He’s written for 11 publications in five states, and is the proprietor of The Five Points Flood.