© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Is This Really The Nastiest Election Season? Or Just Politics As Usual?


Is this political season historically nasty or just nasty as usual? To get some perspective on political dirt, we turn to our favorite mudslinger, A.J. Jacobs, editor at large at Esquire magazine. I can't believe I said in introducing you that we turn to you for perspective, but hi, A.J.

A J JACOBS: (Laughter) Thank you, little Scott.

SIMON: (Laughter).

JACOBS: That's right (laughter).

SIMON: Listen, so you called me little Scott. This is, you know, this is an echo of Senator Marco Rubio being disparaged as little Marco by Donald Trump. But size was also an issue in the Lincoln-Douglas campaign.

JACOBS: That's right. There is a history of height shaming. Abraham Lincoln's campaign, not Abraham Lincoln himself, but his campaign mocked Steven Douglas in 1860 for his lack of stature. And pro-Lincoln writers describe Douglas as the little giant who was 5-feet-nothing in height and about the same in diameter the other way. That is some 19th-century shade right there. And now, the anti-Lincoln newspapers - I think they were even more bullying. One called Lincoln a hatchet face with an ungainly mass of legs and arms. And they said he was a horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between a nutmeg dealer, a horse swapper, and the night man.

SIMON: Night man was - I'll have you explain it because I want to keep my hands clean on this...

JACOBS: Of course. It was a man who cleans outhouses.

SIMON: You see, the 1800 contest between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams is often called the first negative campaign.

JACOBS: Yes, this one had some serious mudslinging. And Thomas Jefferson, actually - he didn't do it himself. He outsourced it. He hired a reporter to do a hatchet job on John Adams. And the reporter said, among other things, that Adams was neither a man nor a woman. And this was long before it was OK to be gender fluid. And he said Adams had a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman. Now, the anti-Jefferson forces...

SIMON: I'm going to say absolutely nothing in response to that, go ahead.

JACOBS: (Laughter) I noticed your silence.

SIMON: Yeah.

JACOBS: The anti-Jefferson forces were even more inflammatory. Here's one newspaper writer warning about a Jefferson presidency. He says, are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames, female chastity violated, children writhing on the pike? Great God of compassion and justice, shield my country from destruction. And this was in all caps, so it was like an email from your deranged uncle.

SIMON: Now, this would make a musical. I mean...


SIMON: I bet this is being shopped around Broadway right now, don't you think?

JACOBS: (Laughter) Yeah, that "Hamilton," it seems so tame in comparison.

SIMON: Davy Crockett, the king of the wild frontier - but before that, he was a member of Congress, and had a dispute with Martin Van Buren.

JACOBS: That's right. He was a big trash-talker and also transphobic. He despised Martin Van Buren and said that Van Buren is laced up in corsets such as women in town wear. It would be difficult to say from his personal appearance whether he was a man or a woman but for his large red and grey whiskers. And by the way, this is from a man who wore an elaborate fur hat. So I would say glass houses, Davy Crockett.

SIMON: (Laughter) I remember hearing, when I first began to read about political history, that the 1952 - was it - the Florida Senate race between George Smathers and Claude Pepper was, like, the dirtiest people could recall then.

JACOBS: Right, this is famous for being the dirtiest campaign speech ever. And Smathers gave a speech, and the idea was the crowd was not so sophisticated. And Smathers slammed his opponent by saying that his opponent's sister was a thespian, and the brother was a homo sapiens, and the opponent himself was a shameless extrovert. Now, he never actually said any of those. They were a hoax made up by a reporter.


JACOBS: Yeah, but...


JACOBS: (Laughter) But the story has been repeated so many times that many people, including you, think it's true. Because homo sapiens - we prefer a good story to the truth.

SIMON: Yeah. A.J. Jacobs, who thankfully - we've gone through another convention season and his name is yet to be on a ballot in the fall. Thanks so much for being with us.

JACOBS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.