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Henningsen: Toads, Liars And Darwin

Few remember the Peggy Eaton affair, the Whiskey Ring, the Mulligan Letters, Teapot Dome, the Vicuna Coat, the Hughes Deal - all scandals that rocked the political landscape and influenced campaigns of yesteryear. Someday this will also be true of personal email servers, Benghazi, and mythical New Jersey Muslims cheering 9/11. It’s all part of our not-so-glorious political tradition of no-holds-barred campaigning. Here are a few items in the “We’ve seen worse” category to keep in mind as we brave the coming storm.

For example, there’s been a lot of nasty political invective recently but, for sheer exuberance, none of it matches Federalist denunciation of Jeffersonian opponents as “poison-sucking toads” or Democratic chants about a scandal-prone Republican as:
“Blaine, Blaine
James G. Blaine
Continental Liar from the State of Maine”

Blaine’s opponent, Grover Cleveland, had problems too – most notably having fathered a child out of wedlock – leading Republicans to cry “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?”

When the forthright Cleveland turned scandal into shining example, telling the truth and demonstrating his financial support of mother and child, Democrats answered “Where’s my Pa?” with “Going to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”

And he did.

Right now we’re hearing elegies of the “I-fear-for-the-future-of-the-republic” variety – a trope dating back to the 1790’s when Federalist Fisher Ames, having compared monarchy to a ship which sails well but can be wrecked, looked at his Jeffersonian opponents and continued,

“Democracy is like a raft. It will never sink. But your feet are always in the water.”

From fears of the wild frontiersman Andrew Jackson to apoplectic denunciations of “that man Roosevelt”, we’ve been down this road before. In 1896, when prairie populist William Jennings Bryan stampeded the Democratic convention to secure the nomination, one pillar of the party establishment said with horror that for the first time he really understood the French Revolution.

Another party elder, asked after the Bryan revolt if he was still a Democrat, sighed, “Yes, I’m a Democrat still – very still.”

And modern pundits have a ways to go to match Henry Adams’s observation that the progression of the American presidency from Washington to Grant offers positive proof that Darwin was wrong.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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