On the Never-Ending Politics of Mudslinging

Presidential hopefuls are taking shots at each other. It makes the headlines, but it's nothing new, says Joseph Cummins, author of Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential History.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Okay, Rico. This campaign mudslinging, it's just really gotten out of hand.

RICO GALLIANO, host.

Let's see.

(Soundbite of speech)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): In an editorial board with the Reno newspaper, you said two different things, because I have read the transcript.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Mm-hmm.

Sen. CLINTON: You talked about Ronald Reagan being a transformative political leader.

STEWART: Wait. I wasn't really talking about this. Could we - you have said - I was talking about when Congressman Davy Crockett accused Martin Van Buren of wearing women's underclothes in 1836, or…

GALLIANO: Scandal.

STEWART: …how about when the Republicans in 1800 claimed John Adams and his running mate Charles Pinckney shared a total of four mistresses?

GALLIANO: Good Lord.

STEWART: Or how about in 1980 when Jimmy Carter swears somebody stole his debate book?

GALLIANO: Mm-hmm.

STEWART: These tales of misbehaving campaigns and crude behavior, well, they date as far back as, well, almost the presidency.

Author Joe Cummins runs down the name-calling and misbehaving in his book "Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns."

Thanks for being in the studio.

Mr. JOSEPH CUMMINS (Author, "Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns): Thanks. I'm glad to be here.

STEWART: This is just a great book. It's really interesting, because you hear people saying things are so, so terrible now. It was so much more honorable then. Why do people think it's a modern development?

Mr. CUMMINS: I think that people have short memories, and I think that they believe that our forbearers in the past where these founding fathers who were ideal and who were - would never have stooped to dirty tricks. But, for instance, in 1800, which was an election between two of our founding fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, it was one of the dirtiest elections in American history. And that was only our fourth presidential election.

STEWART: What was so bad about that one?

Mr. CUMMINS: Well, in that one, you had Thomas Jefferson and, of course, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, hiring a writer to secretly attack John Adams as a hideous hermaphrodite…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUMMINS: …and a repulsive pedant. I mean, even Hillary wouldn't say that about Obama these days, I don't think.

GALLIANO: Was it true?

Mr. CUMMINS: It may well have been. No, but, John was a sort of a roly-poly, not a manly man like George Washington was, who was 6"2' and quite the guy. So no, I don't think it was true. But - and that was a very nasty election.

STEWART: Well, let's look at some of the examples, the things that people have had to deal with, candidates have had to deal with in the past compared to what people are dealing with today.

Mr. CUMMINS: Sure.

STEWART: Let's start with Mitt Romney. He took a time out to give an entire speech about his religion, about his Mormon faith. But in 1928, a Catholic running for president had to fend off some wild accusations about him, about the Holland Tunnel and about the pope. Tell us about Herbert Hoover versus Al Smith.

Mr. CUMMINS: Yeah. Herbert Hoover versus Al Smith in 1928 was one of the dirtiest elections in American history. And Al Smith was the Catholic candidate, the first Catholic to run for president, and he was the governor of New York. So Republicans spread a lot of handbills throughout the South and West claiming that the Holland Tunnel, which had just been dug in 1928, actually did not go to New Jersey. It went 3,500 miles underneath the Atlantic Ocean to the Vatican, where Al Smith would secretly meet with the pope - I mean, I don't know whether the pope met halfway or not, but whatever. He would secretly meet and get his marching orders from the pope.

GALLIANO: This is not satire?

Mr. CUMMINS: No.

GALLIANO: They were literally claiming this?

Mr. CUMMINS: They actually claimed this, and they made sure they claimed it to people who - especially in those days, would probably never have visited New York City and wouldn't really know.

GALLIANO: Man.

STEWART: In the…

Mr. CUMMINS: And it would - yeah.

STEWART: In the case of Barack Obama, he's had to fend off these erroneous emails circulating around that he was taught in a radical Muslim school. And when I read that, I thought - and after reading your book - thinking like, okay, this sounds like a page out of the Lyndon Johnson smear of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Explain what went on during that fight.

Mr. CUMMINS: Well, that was also one of the dirtiest elections in 20th century. And basically, you had Barry Goldwater, who was the Democratic president - excuse me - and was the Democratic president, and he who was the Republican candidate…

STEWART: Candidate.

Mr. CUMMINS: …and Johnson was the Democratic president.

STEWART: You need to grab a sip of water? You okay?

Mr. CUMMINS: I'm sorry. I need a sip water.

STEWART: Go for it. You won't believe Lyndon Johnson was doing. Okay. Go ahead.

Mr. CUMMINS: And, yes - and sorry about that, to build the suspense. And Lyndon Johnson actually set up a committee of 16 people called the Five O'Clock Club, which met after hours in the executive office building and reported directly to his White House staff. And they did things like write hundreds of letters in secret to Ann Landers, claiming that they were from ordinary citizens who were terrified of the idea of a Goldwater presidency. And they also put out - and I think this is particularly seditious, they put out a coloring book for children, which had Barry Goldwater dressed in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan, so that they could…

GALLIANO: Oh my man.

Mr. CUMMINS: …bend the minds of the little children at the same time. And more seriously, they did things like have E. Howard Hunt, who was an active CIA agent at that time…

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CUMMINS: …infiltrate Barry Goldwater's campaign and steal his policy speeches, which he would then deliver directly to the Lyndon Johnson White House. So whenever Goldwater would make a major speech, they'd have an answer for it right away.

GALLIANO: Sort of a pre-Watergate.

Mr. CUMMINS: It was pre-Watergate, because Howard Hunt - and then in 1972, was not a CIA agent anymore, but still worked for the Nixon reelection committee.

STEWART: So he had practice.

Mr. CUMMINS: He had practice.

STEWART: He had his (unintelligible) in the '60s.

Mr. CUMMINS: But this is why - you see - this is why you have people - Richard Nixon is so vilified in American history. But he said, you know, as far as he was concerned, Watergate was just another political bugging, and in a certain sense, he was right.

STEWART: We're talking to Joe Cummins, the author of the book "Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns."

We actually have a unique situation with Senator Clinton running - obviously, sort of the first woman candidate who could seriously be the Democratic…

GALLIANO: Yes.

STEWART: …nominee. In terms of what she's had to endure, whether it's nepotism, she's riding on her husband's coattails, or she's so divisive she won't get anything done, or, you know, whether she's being beaten up in the debates by stronger boys.

Mr. CUMMINS: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

STEWART: Is there any other campaign that is similar to her campaign in terms of what she's had to endure?

Mr. CUMMINS: Well, it's - of course, she's a first because she's a woman, and she is basically, you know, being attacked because she's being - it's called Billary and she's called…

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CUMMINS: …the Clintons if she can't really do it on her own. But I know - I think there's - the really nastiness of her campaign can be - of this campaign against her can be compared may be to 1988, Dukakis against the first George Bush…

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CUMMINS: …in which Dukakis was portrayed as a weak-willed person who really would not be the kind of strong president that would keep us, you know, out of foreign wars, et cetera, et cetera. So…

STEWART: So that falls in your list of the 10 attacks - you're not tough enough.

Mr. CUMMINS: Yeah. You're not tough enough, yeah, or you lead us into war or you won't lead us into war. These are 10 - among the 10 classic attacks in presidential history.

STEWART: All right. I do want to get to those 10 classic attacks. Can you stick around for a couple more minutes?

Mr. CUMMINS: Sure. Of course.

STEWART: We're going to take a quick break and continue our conversation with Joe Cummins about "Anything for a Vote." Rico, it's not - Rico, it's just this election that's particularly dirty. Although dirty, Joe is saying this one's pretty tough, right?

GALLIANO: It is pretty nasty. Yeah.

STEWART: All right. We'll back about that after the break.

Stay with us here at THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. New Music Tuesday coming up as well.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Welcome back to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

We are on AM, FM digital satellite, iTunes and online at npr.org/bryantpark. I'm Alison Stewart.

GALLIANO: And I'm Rico Galliano.

Coming up: It's New Music Tuesday. Andy Langer from Esquire magazine is here to guide us.

STEWART: But we do want to finish our conversation with Joe Cummins, the author of "Anything for a Vote."

Joe, we've been talking about how running for president, the campaigns have been dirty for a really long time. And at the end of your book, you give the top 10 classic attacks in a presidential election.

Now, Senator McCain has had to deal with one, maybe two of these. Here they are.

You're not tough enough. You'll drive us into war. You're an egghead. You're an idiot. You're a slut. You're clearly not having sex with anyone. You're at least a little bit gay. You're drunk all the time. You're insane. You are too old.

GALLIANO: Sounds like a schoolyard, doesn't it?

STEWART: I know.

Mr. CUMMINS: It does. And that's sort of the tenor of American politics for over 200 years. Yes, apparently, McCain - well, McCain has had to deal with the fact that he's as old as Ronald Reagan…

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CUMMINS: …was when Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency in 1980. And he's also apparently had to deal with slurs that he loses his temper a lot and becomes quite angry.

STEWART: Yeah, the Romney campaign actually has something out right now on their Web site describing times when the senator has lost his cool, as they put it.

Mr. CUMMINS: Yeah. He's completely lost his cool apparently, and he can get very angry. But so could Bill Clinton, of course. He's famous for losing his temper, as he's lost it possibly to the detriment of the Clinton campaign recently. You're drunk all the time is one that was directed against people like Franklin Pierce, who was an 1846 president who actually was drunk all the time

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUMMINS: But it's also been directed against people like the second George Bush who, I think, has probably cleared up his drinking problem. And more recently, it's been directed - particularly by the Clinton campaign - against Barack Obama because of the drug use that he admitted to in his past. But, of course, he says he doesn't do this anymore…

STEWART: When he was a kid. Yeah.

Mr. CUMMINS: …when he was a kid in his memoir. In fact, the co-chair of Hillary's campaign in New Hampshire was first to resign after bringing the matter up in New Hampshire during that primary.

STEWART: So it really is interesting. You can kind of distill it down into these 10 items. The book is great. It's got these really great charts on the side that show on a scale of one to 10, how dirty…

Mr. CUMMINS: How dirty they are. Yeah.

STEWART: …a campaign is. And I know you keep a blog going as well. But you have actually said you think this season has been pretty dirty. It might get eight, nine or 10.

Mr. CUMMINS: I think that this presidential campaign, especially when we have either a black man or a woman who is going to be the Democratic nominee for president, is going to be probably, it's going to break into my top 10 dirtiest list of top 10 dirty presidential elections.

GALLIANO: Now, you're predicting this. This is - you don't think it's gotten there yet.

Mr. CUMMINS: No. I don't - I think - I don't think it's gotten there yet. But when you start out with things like accusing Mike Huckabee's son of murdering a dog in 1998, and then you're moving on to a 90-minute movie which has just been released which basically portrays Hillary Clinton as a totalitarian, Hitler-like figure and it's still the primaries, I think we're getting there. Yeah.

STEWART: Joe Cummins is author of "Anything for a Vote." It's a great read.

Thanks for coming into the studio.

Mr. CUMMINS: Thank you very much. Thanks.

STEWART: We really appreciate it.

Hey, New Music Tuesday's on the way.

But first, let's go to Rachel Martin. She has some news.

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