Puzzlewits and Fatheads

This *Is* Normal. American Politics Have Always Been Terrible.

The more civil norms America that experienced in the latter half of the 20th century and in the beginning of the 21st were what was abnormal.


Isaac Brekken/Getty

Between the Russia scandal and the legislative impotence, I keep hearing from people who are demoralized and exhausted from the mind-numbing whirlwind of news and controversy confronting us each day.

It feels like America is going through a very difficult time, but we already have been through a lot in our history. From time to time, it’s important to reflect on our past, lest we indulgently believe that these times are uniquely bad.

“I’m trying to subtly remind people every day that we’ve had tough times before,” says Carl Cannon, author of the new book On This Date: From the Pilgrims to Today, Discovering America One Day at a Time. “Our politics now is raw and the country is polarized. There’s no question about that. And all of the historic lessons aren’t good.”

Books like Cannon’s remind us that the norms America experienced in the latter half of the 20th century and in the beginning of the 21st (including expectations of an ostensibly unbiased press and the eschewing of ad hominem attacks) were what was abnormal.

We might lament negative campaigning and the lack of civility in politics, but during the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s supporters referred to President John Adams as a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Meanwhile, backers of Adams called Vice President Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."

This makes “Low Energy Jeb” and “Lyin’ Ted” sound tame.

Teddy Roosevelt publicly excoriated his successor William Howard Taft as a “puzzlewit” and a “fathead.” Taft blasted his former mentor and friend as a “honeyfugler,” “demagogue,” and “hypocrite.” Warren Harding compared Roosevelt to Aaron Burr (“the same overbearing disposition and ungovernable temper [as Burr], the same ruthlessness… the same tendency to bully and browbeat”). He condemned Roosevelt as “utterly without conscience and regard for truth, the greatest fakir of all times… selfish, intolerant, unstable, violently headstrong, vain and unstably ambitious of power.” Taft, Roosevelt, and Harding were all Republicans. Imagine what they thought about the Democrats.

Sometimes the attacks were even leveled at the family members of rivals. Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was accused of adultery and bigamy. Speaking of Old Hickory, I might have been the first person to publicly compare Donald Trump to Andrew Jackson—and the comparison holds up. Think Trump’s vulgar populism is uncouth and unbefitting the presidency? Consider the wild party Jackson threw for his inauguration that wrecked the White House. Don’t like the fact that Trump is subverting institutions and publicly attacking judges? Jackson simply ignored a Supreme Court ruling—something Trump has never done (though Newt Gingrich flirted with the idea).

Don’t like it when Donald Trump takes to Twitter to intimidate people and punch down? The only thing new here is the medium. When a music reviewer panned his daughter’s singing, President Harry Truman physically threatened the reviewer in a letter, saying, “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

The trend of violent rhetoric is nothing new, but neither is actual political violence. Consider Aaron Burr’s shooting of Alexander Hamilton in a duel—or the much less chivalrous caning of abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber (the latter example foreshadowed a bloody civil war and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln).

The 1960s and early 1970s would usher in more violence―including riots, unrest, and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Muslim leader Malcolm X, George Lincoln Rockwell, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Governor George Wallace.

Think it’s unprecedented that President Trump is attacking the lying media? According to First Amendment scholar Geoffrey Stone's book Perilous Times, free speech has been suppressed “in six historical periods from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the Vietnam War.” Consider JFK famously cancelling the White House’s subscription to the New York Herald-Tribune. Consider the Nixon administration’s criticism of the press, including Vice President Spiro Agnew’s famous line about the “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

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Worried about the rise of crazy bloggers? Consider James Calendar, the infamous scribbler for hire who threw away Hamilton’s shot at the presidency and then flipped on Thomas Jefferson and revealed the Sally Hemings affair. Think the problem is the uptick in anonymous internet trolls? Consider Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, who employed pseudonyms for The Federalist Papers.

Don’t like the optics of Trump family members Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in the White House? Recall the nepotism charges against John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton (just to name a few). Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law was his Secretary of the Treasury. JFK’s Attorney General was his brother Bobby; his director of the Peace Corps was his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver.

Concerned about allegations that Trump’s team colluded with the Russians? Again, this is nothing new. For liberals, there’s reason to believe that Richard Nixon might have colluded with South Vietnam’s president to stymie LBJ’s peace plan. For conservatives, there’s reason to believe that then-Senator Ted Kennedy tried to work with the Soviets against Ronald Reagan.

Didn’t like the “Lock her up” chants aimed at Hillary Clinton? Woodrow Wilson had Eugene Debs, his presidential competitor, locked up for opposing U.S. entry into World War I. Debs ran again in 1920 from his cell in an Atlanta prison.

Frightened that Russian President Vladimir Putin overmatched Trump at the recent G20 summit? For decades, conservatives complained about FDR selling out Eastern Europe to “Uncle Joe” Stalin at the Yalta Conference. Consider the fate of a young President Kennedy, who was outmatched by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in their 1961 meeting. No amount of danger we currently face can compare with the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis face-off, which very well could have led to a nuclear war.

This is all to say that America has been through a lot in our history—and we have managed to endure.

Granted, it seems that for every oddity in American history that there seems to be a modern Trumpian parallel. Still, we should take solace in America’s colorful history—and I’m just scratching the surface (Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, FDR tried to pack the courts, JFK’s FBI spied on Martin Luther King).

“The good old days are largely good because we have survived them,” observes presidential historian David Pietrusza, “but they could be pretty brutal. Politics was a contact sport. Voter fraud plagued not only elections in Tammany Hall but tainted “Landslide Lyndon” Johnson’s election to the US Senate in 1948 and JFK’s election to the White House in 1960. Joe McCarthy termed a colleague “a living miracle without brains or guts.” Harry Truman basically called Tom Dewey a fascist in 1948, but he had it right when he said, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of politics.

Even those who view Donald Trump as dangerous should still put things in perspective. I asked Bill Scher, a liberal author who (during the Bush years) wrote a book titled, Wait! Don’t Move to Canada!, for his take. "Trump is uniquely unhinged, but we've had mentally unbalanced people in the Oval Office,” Scher said. “Nixon once dragged his butler to the Lincoln Memorial at 4 am to gab with student protesters and proceeded to confuse everyone with weird ramblings about traveling to Europe. Wilson was secretly incapacitated after a stroke, and his wife vetoed legislation. The republic survived, because it’s bigger than one person."

There have been ups and downs, but the Founders were on to something. They created a system in which power is diffuse and can weather rough storms.

There’s nothing new under the sun.