Savaging Presidents

Savaging Presidents

As he accepted the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, Bob Dole, one of the Senate’s toughest infighters for more than a decade, cautioned his supporters that President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were “opponents, not enemies.” Dole’s words of caution made for a great sound bite on the evening news, but in the context of the 1990s, when campaign bumper stickers asking, “Where is Lee Harvey Oswald when his country needs him?” barely drew a protest from voters, Dole’s plea did not, as he knew, have a chance of success. In a decade of attack ads and negative campaigning, real political power was firmly in the hands of those who, in the words of veteran Republican consultant Ed Rollins, believed their job was “to diminish the reputation of the other side.”

We make a mistake, however, if we look back on the 1990s and think that the savaging of President Clinton was unprecedented. Some of the mechanisms—notably the Internet and the Office of the Independent Counsel—that made it easy to attack Clinton were recent historical developments. But long before the Internet, the Independent Counsel, and the negative campaign ad, we savaged our presidents with gibes, caricature, and invective. Since the end of the eighteenth century, it is a fate that no president, no matter how successful his administration, has been completely able to avoid.

In the wake of his Farewell Address, George Washington was labeled by the opposition press as “the source of all the misfortunes of our country,” a man who “cankered the principles of republicanism.” Abraham Lincoln, while in office, was described as a “half-witted usurper” and a “mole-eyed” monster. On the eve of the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt was compared to Hitler.

Even more telling, those trashing the president have not just been political hacks or partisan editors; they have often been among the brightest and most respected figures of their day. It was the revolutionary writer Tom Paine, who, in an open letter in the Aurora, celebrated Washington’s retirement by praying for his death and calling him an “impostor.” It was the Reverend Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, who observed of Thomas Jefferson that his administration promised an age in which, “We may see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution, soberly dishonored, speciously polluted.” It was aviation hero Charles Lindbergh who told a Madison Square Garden audience that in the 1940 election Americans had as much free choice over foreign affairs “as the Germans would have been given if Hitler had run against Göring.”

Indeed, the real problem in describing the kind of savaging of the president that has been going on in America for the last two hundred-odd years stems from the degree to which political savaging is often so sweepingly defined that it is equated with satire or harsh criticism. Much more useful, if we want to get at the...