Presidential Politics at Its Worst?

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As I write this week's Confessing History column, the residents of New Hampshire are preparing to go to the polls in the first primary of the 2012 presidential election. By the time you read it, the New Hampshire winner will, most likely, be declared.

As the GOP primary schedule moves forward, I have no doubt that the next few weeks is going to be a circus of incivility, shouting matches, and the exercising of personal vendettas that have nothing to do with the needs of the country.

Just think what has happened already.

Newt Gingrich used his "concession speech" in Iowa last week to slam Ron Paul and Mitt Romney for their negative ads. He even implied that such ads were not worthy of the sacrifices made by those in military service who died for our right to engage in such democratic debate. Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer called Newt's speech "one of the most ungracious moments I have ever seen in politics."

Newt is angry, and instead of turning the other cheek, like his Catholic faith teaches him to do, he responded with negative newspaper ads and a few smug attacks on Mitt Romney's character. Indeed, it is hard, if not impossible, to be a successful presidential candidate and still follow Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

Last week, John McCain flew to New Hampshire to endorse Mitt Romney. According to many pundits, the Arizona senator endorsed his old political rival to get back at Rick Santorum, who, in the 2008 presidential election, endorsed Romney because he did not want McCain to win the nomination.

The lead-up to the New Hampshire primary has been particularly ugly. Mitt Romney accused Jon Huntsman of selling out the Republican Party by working for Barack Obama as the United States ambassador to China. Huntsman fired back, accusing Romney of placing political partisanship over the good of the country. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum has been criticized by pundits Alan Colmes and Eugene Robinson for the way he handled his wife's miscarriage in 1996.

Frankly, the GOP primaries and debates have been painful to watch. But as a historian, this kind of political incivility does not surprise me. It's par for the course. Anyone who wants to call this one of the ugliest political campaigns in history should, well, study some American history.

For example, in the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson's supporters accused John Adams of having a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force nor firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." The Adams camp responded by calling Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."

In 1828, supporters of John Quincy Adams called Andrew Jackson's mother a prostitute. In 1884, James Blaine's supporters, looking for evidence to attack Grover Cleveland, learned that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child while he lived in Buffalo. It led to one of the most sensational campaign slogans in American history: "Ma, Ma where's your Pa . . . Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!"

And in 1964, Lyndon Johnson ran an ad featuring a young girl picking the petals off of a daisy in a quiet field. The camera zoomed into the girl's eye to reveal a nuclear bomb being detonated. The ad implied that Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, was insane enough to destroy the world with a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Even today the ad has a sinister, if not scary, quality to it.

Just because American politics has always been uncivil and negative does not mean that we have to like it. Toxic political discourse and personal attacks might help candidates win elections, but it will not solve the multitude of problems that we face as a nation.

I am growing increasingly skeptical about whether a Christian can win a national election without compromising his or her faith. Humility, charity, and a commitment to the common good will not get anyone elected in our present political culture. Yet this is precisely what our culture needs. Unfortunately, such an approach to politics would probably come across as quite foolish to most Americans, including many Christians.

1/11/2012 5:00:00 AM
  • Evangelical
  • Confessing History
  • Campaign
  • Civility
  • Election
  • GOP
  • History
  • Jon Huntsman
  • John McCain
  • Mitt Romney
  • Newt Gingrich
  • politics
  • Ron Paul
  • Christianity
  • Evangelicalism
  • John Fea
    About John Fea
    John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). He blogs daily at