Profound Questions: When Did Things Get So Mean?
Originally published March 4, 2011
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
We're at a new low when people say the president isn't even American. A country in crisis deserves lofty debates, and all it takes to drag us down is a campaign financed by zealots, sustained by the slimmest doubt. Thank god Chester Arthur survived.
Outside Fairfield, Vt., stands a reminder of the awfulness: A replica of William Arthur's cute little parsonage decorates a rural hillside, across from a large parking lot that projects serious optimism about demand in the Chester Arthur industry. The state has installed a very authoritative granite marker indicating Chet's birthplace.
But you can't believe everything carved in stone these days. William moved the family a lot during his preaching career, his wife had lived in Canada for a time, and their recordkeeping was as meticulous as that of a cash-only car wash. They claimed the birth was in Fairfield, but they weren't there long, and they might have been confused -- there are still parts of Canada where it's easy to think you're in Vermont, and vice versa. No one can prove exactly where Arthur came into this world, as no magic sideburn tree sprouted on the spot.
Shut out of the White House for 20 years, the Democratic Party paid an investigator to prove that Chester Arthur was Canadian, and headlines were made. Though Arthur brushed off the furor, the "birther" nonsense was a black mark on the nation. Surely it was the only time outside the present -- as you know, the worst it's ever been -- that discourse has been so poisonous and mean.
Unless you count that time John Quincy Adams was accused of being a pimp. Andrew Jackson's supporters were out to avenge his 1824 loss to Adams, pro-wrestling style. That meant burning things, holding drunken rallies, and spreading any rumor that stuck to the wall. Adams was accused of living like a king on the federal dime, turning the White House into a gambling den, and, of course, turning out hos for the Russian tsar.
The reality involved very little in the way of hot pants. When serving as ambassador to Russia, Adams brought along a nanny for his son; the single lady had been introduced briefly to the tsar and his wife. No money changed hands, and no one busted out the Catherine the Great horse apparatus. Revenge, however, is a dish best served with a side of pimping accusations.
Jackson himself didn't go untarred in 1828; Adams supporters put out handbills accusing him of being a murderer (arguably true), a hick (definitely true), the son of a prostitute and a party to polygamy -- Jackson's wife had some paperwork problems with her first marriage. It wasn't enough to stop him.
What goes around comes around, though. Jackson's campaign manager, Martin Van Buren, tried to use the strategy for himself in 1840. He smeared William Harrison as a drunk moron, before realizing that drunk morons were a majority of the electorate. Van Buren at least had a sense of humor about things: he decorated the study of his New York mansion with the political cartoons that were particularly vicious about Martin Van Buren. They still hang there, reminding visitors that the politics of personal destruction lights all-consuming fires.
Yet we have not learned! In this era -- the most venomous ever -- not only have horrific personal slanders returned, they are accompanied by insipid questioning of a man's patriotism. Never before has such evil been perpetrated in the name of political gain!
Well, except by Thomas Jefferson. The country wasn't shaping up according to his vision, so in his 1800 quest for the White House he kinda sorta accused fellow Founding Father John Adams of being mentally unstable and wanting to restore a monarchy. Despotic rule is unpatriotic to most Americans, so that had to hurt.
Jefferson stayed above the fray using surrogates -- like lots of contemporaries, he made semi-secretive financial arrangements with newspaper publishers to smear his opponents. The modern media is a cesspool of hatred and misinformation -- obviously the slimiest press corps in history -- but well into the 19th century you could pay most journalists to accuse your opponent of insanity, or sexual deviance, or atheism. All it took was some cash, or maybe a government printing contract, because you could still use federal jobs as bribes well into the 20th century.
Surrogates were practical, though, since direct slander could mean a duel. Today's angry press releases sting worse than mere bullets, but back then dueling was a big deal. Jefferson's friends knew first-hand. No less a man than James Monroe had been challenged by Alexander Hamilton, for allegedly spreading the news of Hamilton's extramarital affairs. Cooler heads prevailed, as another prominent American mediated an end to the dispute. His name was Aaron Burr, and he went on to distinction as the man who actually killed Hamilton in duel. Oh, and he tried to establish an empire in Louisiana once. And he was vice president for a while.
But it was all quaint by present-day standards. Our wise predecessors would shudder to see their system on the verge of collapse, burned by searing partisanship. We call ourselves civilized, yet one can pick up any independent, non-bribed newspaper to find stories of clearly identified interest groups calling our leaders stupid, or snobby. Fie! What hope do our children have, when the nation's future is regularly discussed in philosophical terms by millions of people with access to limitless factual information?
Step back from the brink, Americans, and emulate always the principled and civil debates of our forefathers -- before the Armageddon that is modern politics. Just skip over the minor exceptions of 1880, 1840, 1828 and 1800. Oh, and the time Grover Cleveland's love child with a prostitute was a major campaign issue. And Millard Fillmore running as the candidate of an anti-immigrant secret society. And Al Smith and JFK being accused of serving the pope, LBJ implying Goldwater would get your babies nuked, Woodrow Wilson backing racial segregation, the Red Scare, Nixon, the 15 years before the Civil War, and the Civil War.
It's always darkest before the dawn.