Today we will be reviewing some examples of mudslinging in presidential election campaigns between the Reconstruction Era and the eve of the Great Depression.
The election of 1884 shook up politics in the United States as it brought a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, to the White House for the first time since the administration of James Buchanan a quarter-century earlier. Unlike his presidential predecessors, Cleveland was a confirmed bachelor. However, during the campaign it was discovered he was having an affair with a widow in Buffalo and that he had fathered a son with the woman. Cleveland admitted the child was his. The Republicans seized on the paternity scandal, mocking Cleveland by chanting the rhyme, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” In the following weeks, Republican newspapers slammed Cleveland for the transgression. It appeared as if the Democrat was going to lose the election.
Enter Republican candidate James Blaine. Blaine was already the target of some nasty accusations from his Democrat opponent. He was engaged in shady dealings with a railroad company. The accusations were confirmed when a letter was found in which Blaine pretty much admitted that he was involved in a corrupt business - he signed the letter, “My regards to Mrs. Fisher. Burn this letter!” Cleveland's Democrats made up their own chant based on his writings - “Burn this letter! Burn this letter!”
However, it was one of Blaine’s supporters who helped the candidate snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. With the election only one week away, Blaine was campaigning in New York City. He was hoping to win over the vital Irish Catholic vote to secure New York State. Everything was going his way until the Rev. Samuel Burchard, speaking at a pro-Blaine event, denounced the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” In short, the minister had told Blaine supporters the Democratic party was controlled by alcoholics (“rum”), Catholics (“Romanism”), and ex-Confederates (“rebellion”). When Democratic newspapers across the country ran the phrase as a headline the next day, Blaine’s campaign suffered a mortal blow from which it could not recover.
Anti-Catholic sentiment reared its ugly head again in the 1928 election contest between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith. Smith, the Democratic candidate, was a Roman Catholic. Hoover raised the issue on multiple occasions during the campaign. Hoover’s supporters were even worse. They argued that if Smith was elected, the United States would be subjected to “Romanism and Ruin.” Protestant ministers told their congregations that if Smith became president, all non-Catholic marriages would be annulled and all children of these marriages declared illegitimate. Preachers even warned their congregations that if they voted for Al Smith, they would go straight to hell.
In Daytona Beach, Florida, the school board instructed that a note be placed in every child's lunch pail that read: “We must prevent the election of Alfred E. Smith to the presidency. If he is chosen president, you will not be allowed to read or have a bible.” On the eve of the election, the Holland Tunnel in New York was just about completed. Republicans leveled allegations that Smith had commissioned a secret tunnel 3,500 miles long, from the Holland Tunnel to the Vatican in Rome, and that the Pope would have say in all presidential matters should Smith be elected.
Even Hoover’s wife, Lou, got in on the action. She and other Republicans spread vicious rumors of Smith's alleged alcoholism because he favored the repeal of Prohibition. Republicans sneeringly referred to him as “Alcoholic Smith,” told of outrageous drunken public behavior, and claimed that he had secretly promised to appoint a bootlegger as secretary of the treasury.
Others went as far as to lash out at Smith’s wife Kate and her Irish heritage. They claimed if she became the First Lady the White House would smell of “corned beef, cabbage, and home brew.”
As a final kick in the pants, one Protestant minister rallied against Smith for dancing and accused him of doing the “bunny hug, turkey trot, hesitation, tango, Texas Tommy, the hug-me-tight, foxtrot, shimmy-dance...and skunk-waltz.” Another claimed that Smith indulged in “card-playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces, novels, stuffy rooms, evolution...nude art, prize-fighting, actors, greyhound racing, and modernism.”
Hoover won the election in a landslide while Smith was forced to slink away as the press mercilessly continued to mock him.
Poor Smith. Hopefully after the election he had some free time to play with his poodle dogs and do the skunk waltz with Kate.