Sometimes timing is everything. And sometimes, the week after Barak Obama's spokesman said that John McCain is "cynically running the sleaziest and least honorable campaign in modern presidential campaign history," The Common Man finally gets around to finishing Anything for a Vote, Joseph Cummins reader-friendly guide to dirty Presidential politics. So is Obama's spokesman right? Where would this election cycle rank on Cummins "Sleaze-o-meter?" And is this book worth your time?
Cummins argues that dirty politics is an American tradition, and ingrained within the American populace, the nation's psyche, and the political process. "Without smears, innuendo, and thievery tainting our electoral system," he writes, "what would we have to connect us to our quickly vanishing past?... We're Americans, after all. A nice, dirty election runs in our blood." It's a provacative statement, and one that Cummins backs up by systematically examining every single election since 1789. Indeed, he concludes that "probably the only clean election in American history was the first one...in which George Washington ran unopposed." Since then, there have been a steady progression of dirty tricks and ugly accusations in Presidential races, including Davy Crockett's claim that Martin Van Buren dressed in ladies' corsets, Hoover supporters asserting that the Holland Tunnel led straight to the Vatican (as Hoover's opponent, Al Smith, was a practicing Catholic), and Rutherford B. Hayes supporters claiming his opponent, Samuel Tilden, "had contracted syphilis some years earlier from an Irish whore on the Bowery, and that his venerial disease not only affected his actions, but made him susceptible to blackmail."
In all, Cummins does demonstrate that running for President has invited mud and smears, and that candidates knew what they were in for. But, while dirty politics may have been part of the game since the bitter 1800 election between Jefferson and Adams, he gives his highest "sleaze" ratings to elections in 1960, 1964, 1972, 1988, 1992, and 2000 (and with the second highest rating to 2004). Prior to that run, only 3 elections reached the pinnacle of sleaze, the aforementioned 1800 election, 1879 (Hayes v. Tildon), and 1928 (Hoover v. Smith). So while the dirty pool is nothing new, the intensity seems to have ratcheted up in recent years, and become increasingly vindictive. So it's entirely plausible that this year's cycle will see the most vitriolic, ugly, and disgusting attacks in campaign history. And it validates the idea that, in bygone days, politics wasn't so rancorous and off-putting as it is now, and that when Obama and McCain talked about getting back to a more civil style of politics they weren't idealizing and romanticizing the past.
So far, The Common Man would put this election cycle up at a 8 or so on Cummins' "sleaze-o-meter." News networks have openly speculated that Barak Obama is Muslim (a similar charge dogged unsuccessful 1856 candidate John Fremont, who was accused of being a secret Catholic), and one blatantly false McCain ad has suggested that he wants kindergarters to have "comprehensive sex education." He's also been drug through the mud because of his tangential associations with Reverand Wright, Father Pflager, and William Ayers. And he and his wife have openly had their patriotism questioned because sometimes he chooses not to wear an American flag pin and his wife has been honest enough to bring up that life in America is often more difficult for people of color, particularly if those people are women.
Of course, Obama's not alone as a target, nor is he entirely innocent of the mudslinging. Obama's campaign has lampooned John McCain for being unable to use a computer, when it's possible that his POW injuries won't allow him to sit at a desk and use a keyboard. Hilary Clinton was called shrill, a harpy, and the epitome of a bitchy feminism. Sarah Palin has been accused of faking a pregnancy to cover up her daughter's illegitamate child, and now it seems that daughter has a baby on the way. In all, it's an impressive list. The Common Man was tempted to give it a 10 so far (and someday, when books are written on this election, it might rank that high), but there are still a couple of months to go and The Common Man wants the candidates and their supporters to have a notion to shoot for (perhaps this election will go to 11).
Cummins's book itself is a fun read, and, as The Common Man mentioned, very reader friendly. And it's a very informative, quick, and breezy run through American history. It is not, however, a serious work of political science or scholarly research. There are no footnotes, nothing to suggest Cummins's sources. And his politics seem to come through in his recounting of the 2000 and 2004 elections (but really, who doesn't think that those didn't go well for this country?). Casual fans of politics will find it right up their alleys.