The worst campaigns in U.S. history

by | Jul 28, 2019 | Lisa Black, The Writer's Life | 10 comments

by Lisa Black

            A lifetime ago, and only because I liked big buildings with lots of marble, I majored in political science. It is one of many indications of my non-suitability for this field that I have never worked on a campaign. Not even to help a bestie win fifth grade class president.
I regret that now…I should have done it at least once, to experience the insane pace, the over-the-top displays of public enthusiasm, the unchecked brawls of rhetoric. I wonder if it would have sharpened my nearly nonexistent spirit of competition, or turned me into a permanent recluse. After all, political campaigns have never been accused of bringing out the best in people, not now, not ever—as illustration, check out these slogans from U.S. history:
1848 political cartoon,
which I am unable to interpret
“that pot-bellied, mutton-headed, cucumber-soled…”

            And thus did the editor of the The New York Post, Horace Greeley, refer to candidate Lewis Cass, running against Zachary Taylor for president. Cass was okay with slavery, which caused a split in the Democratic party, but Greeley particularly distrusted Cass’s habit of buying up land whenever and wherever he could.
            No one has ever been able to figure out what he meant by ‘cucumber-soled,’ though.
            “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?” – Chant used by James Blaine supporters to taunt Grover Cleveland, referring to his illegitimate son

The mother was a widow, Cleveland was single and fully supported the child, but in those days none of that mattered. This story would likely have cost Cleveland the election—had not Blaine’s own skeletons of corruption been such that he once signed a note to a pal with “Burn this letter!”
            “Your vote versus the spectacle of idleness and ruin.” – anti-Smith campaign slogan

And Al even had a song
written for him!
            Herbert Hoover, a man so stiff and mechanical that he makes Richard Nixon look like Papa Smurf, nevertheless won this election against opponent Al Smith. Smith, a gregarious, four-time New York governor had two major failings: a) though a moderate drinker, he opposed Prohibition, and b) he was Catholic. Non-Catholics were told their Bibles would be confiscated. They were also told that a picture of Smith near the newly completed Holland tunnel showed a passageway leading directly to the Vatican, underneath the Atlantic Ocean.
If this astonishing feat of advanced though fictional engineering didn’t strike fear into voters, Smith could also be accused of—gasp—dancing, and that his beloved wife was—double gasp—of Irish descent.
            Hoover won 40 out of the 48 states then in the union.
            “[John Adams is a] hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” – James Callendar, writing at the behest of Thomas Jefferson

            And Jefferson and Adams were friends. Well…friends, sometimes frenemies, sometimes agreeing to disagree over doctrines like the extent of a central government and whether the French Revolution had gone a wee bit too far what with the guillotining left and right, but when they both wanted to win the election, things got nasty in a hurry.
            The journalist Callendar, by the way, wound up getting drunk, falling in a river and drowning…though some say he was pushed.
These campaigns have receded far enough into the past that we may just chuckle at the foibles of long-dead politicians, but like a 1964 magazine declaring that Barry Goldwater had been declared ‘emotionally unstable’ by over a thousand psychiatrists, or the 2018 story of a Delaware representative throwing nudist parties at his fitness center (actually the club existed, but he wasn’t a member), or the less personal attack by an unhappy Ohio voter who dumped manure at a party’s headquarters in 2017 (and 2012), I’m sure these muddy slings and arrows were not remotely amusing at the time.

But take heart—at least no one’s been called a cucumber-soled hermaphroditic in a while.

Have you ever worked on a political campaign? Federal? Urban? School board? Farm bureau? What surprised you the most about it?

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  1. Gayle Lynds

    Oh, my goodness, I am laughing and crying at the same time, Lisa. What a wonderful post! Such a great chronical of the craziness and nastiness of previous political campaigns. It almost makes today seem rational. You made me feel better, I think… but I do have several cucumbers in the veggie drawer in my refrigerator…. Wait…. I just checked — no campaign slogans in sight. Whew. My bell peppers and tomatoes are safe! 🙂

  2. Robin Burcell

    Egad! And here I thought 21st century politics was over the top! Thanks for the laugh, Lisa! Made my morning!

  3. Rogue Women Writers

    What a great summary of campaign craziness — sure makes today's exchanges almost calm by comparison. Thanks for the laughs this morning!…Karna Bodman

  4. Chris Goff

    Hilarious. When I was a little girl, my mother and one of her best friends, Monk, worked on the Barry Goldwater Campaign. Laura, my best friend and Monk's daughter, and I were nine. One weekend, our mothers decided to have us help them give away daisy's in downtown Evergreen, encouraging voters to back Goldwater. Why daisies, you ask? Who knows. But Laura and I came up with a slogan, and we changed it incessantly. "Goldwater, Goldwater, he's our man. Johnson belongs in the garbage can." I remember it being a very fun day. It made our mother's happy. We were both too young to care about either of the old men in the race, but most people smiled and took the daisies. I've never campaigned for anything since.

  5. Lisa Black

    Glad to hear it!

  6. Lisa Black

    Happy to help!

  7. Lisa Black

    Let’s hope that’s as bad as it gets!

  8. Lisa Black

    I know why daisies!! It had to be in response to the infamous ‘daisy ad’, a pro-Johnson, anti-Goldwater spot implying nuclear war.

  9. Jamie Freveletti

    Lisa this was great. Underwater tunnel to the Vatican! So many inventive ways to lie about another candidate…. Very funny post, thanks!

  10. Chris Goff

    Ahhh, it makes sense now.