The US presidential elections are still more than a year away and already the silly season is upon us. It seems that each year, commentators lament that each election cycle gets progressively worse as early candidates try to outdo each other by uttering things most five years would be ashamed to own. This year of course, the hand wringing may be justified as Donald Trump (aka The Donald) has pulled head in the Republican nominee field and is leading by a decent margin.
This is not The Donald’s first run for the presidency. He threw his hat into the ring 4 years ago, but dropped out in order to go to Hawaii on more pressing business of finding Barack Obama’s birth certificate (footage not found). But, this time is certainly shaping up to be one of the more entertaining or depressing, depending on how much concern you have for the democratic process. A new low seemed to be hit at the end of July when after being criticized by senator John McCain, Trump went on record saying: “He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, ok? I hate to tell you.” The fun truth is, Trump’s verbal sewage is nothing new in the political arena. In some ways, his jabs are tame in comparison to some of the stuff spouted about politicians by other politicians.
For example, I doubt very much even he would get away with this nice little jab at Mark Antony by Cicero during one of Philippics:
“You assumed a man’s toga and at once turned it into a prostitute’s frock. At first you were a common rent boy; you charged a fix fee, and a steep one at that. Curio soon turned off, though, and took you off your game. You were as firmly wedded to Curio as if he had given you a married woman’s dress. No boy bought for lust was ever as much in his master’s power as you were in Curio’s. How many times did his father throw you out of his house? How many times did he set the watchmen to make sure you did not cross his front door? And yet under cover of night, driven by lust and money, you were let in through the roof tiles.”
19th century England witnessed the kind of verbal sparing that would drive many of today’s professional wrestlers to tears.
Benjamin Disraeli’s attacks against his opponents, especially William Gladstone were legendary. “A sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity.”
Then there is this nifty bon mot about the Churchills from Gladstone: “There never was a Churchill from John of Marlborough down that had either morals or principles.” One is left wondering how Winston would have responded had he been born.
In US politics, slander and insult have existed since the founding of the Republic. During presidential election of 1800, John Adams and his supporters referred to Thomas Jefferson as an apostle of anarchy, a demagogue, a trickster and-worst of all-a Franco-maniac.
One newspaper editor, envisioning an American Reign of Terror, asked readers, “Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames, … female chastity violated, or children writhing on the pike?”
Another warned that if Jefferson were to be elected, “the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.”
Even Abraham Lincoln did not escape verbal and editorial abuse. During his campaign and his presidency, Lincoln was subjected to a considerable amount vitriol. The lionization of Lincoln would not come until later, although there are certain areas in the Deep South that still see him as one of the worst presidents ever. Anyway, during his bid for the White House in 1860 opposition newspapers described him variously as “a third-rate backwoods lawyer,” “a man of few talents,” and “a fourth-rate lecturer who can’t speak good grammar.” Other insults included Despot, Buffoon, Old Scoundrel, and Ignoramus Abe.
The political diss is not unique to the modern political realm. When the Senator from Georgia, Thomas Glascock too his seat, a mutual friend wish to introduce him to Henry Clay, the Senator Henry Clay, Glascock responded with “No, sir! I am his adversary, and choose not to subject myself to his fascination.”
So next time Donald Trump shoots out some sad attempt at witticism and everyone shakes their head about the decline in civility, remind them that in comparison to other political campaigns in the past, we have the eloquence of Demosthenes – just without the appearance that would frighten small children.