Thursday, August 04, 2016

Slinging Mud

In anticipation of the November 2016 presidential election, the Russell Library’s Access and Outreach staff has been working on an exhibit, On the Stump: What Does it Take to Get Elected in Georgia? opening September 2nd in the Harrison Feature Gallery. The exhibit considers the evolution of campaigning for state office and asks visitors to imagine life on the campaign trail. This post is one in a series exploring political slang and its role in elections.

Every election cycle, voters, pundits, and candidates decry the practice of mudslinging – negative campaigning that seeks to promote one candidate only by tearing down the other. The term originates from the Latin phrase Fortiter caluniare, aliquid adhaerebit, which translates to “throw plenty of dirt and some of it will stick.” Sometime after the American Civil War, dirt was transformed into mud and the phrase became widely used in newspapers reporting on political campaign activities by the 1870s.

Leftt: Two avid supporters of political opponents battle it out! Richard B. Russell, Jr. Collection, Russell Library.

The United States has a long and rich history of mudslinging, dating at least as far back as the presidential election of 1796, in which John Adams and Thomas Jefferson each fought to succeed the venerable George Washington into the nation’s highest office. The practice continued and intensified during the 19th century, with smear campaigns aimed at candidates’ alleged political dealings (as against John Quincy Adams in 1828), views (Abraham Lincoln in 1860), or personal lives (Grover Cleveland in 1884).

Later presidential campaigns used television as a primary attack mechanism. Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” ad, though aired only once, generated widespread condemnation for insinuating that a Barry Goldwater Presidency could mean nuclear war. Johnson actually ran other ads making the Goldwater/atomic bomb link more explicit, though pundits have mostly forgotten these. A political action committee (PAC) affiliated with George H. W. Bush’s campaign in 1988 funded a now-classic “soft-on-crime” attack ad against Michael Dukakis. The most recent negative presidential ad to make the history books is probably that aired by the anti-John Kerry 527 group known as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.

Mudslinging is not, of course, exclusively a function of campaigns for the White House. In Georgia, the 2002 U.S. Senate race is remembered as one of the nastiest races in modern memory. First-term Democratic Senator Max Cleland faced an unexpectedly strong challenge from Republican Saxby Chambliss of Moultrie.

Triple amputee Max Cleland lost both legs and an arm near in 1968 while serving in the Vietnam War. So it was especially controversial when Chambliss’ campaign aired this ad, easily the most talked-about ad of the election cycle. The ad accused Cleland of lacking “the courage to lead” President George W. Bush’s homeland security efforts and juxtaposed images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein with Cleland’s face. The final weeks showed the race closing with Cleland leading by six points in an October Mason-Dixon poll and by three points in a poll sponsored by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Right: Governor George Ervin “Sonny” Perdue’s official portrait in 2006 with wife Mary. George Ervin (Sonny) Perdue Official Papers, Russell Library.

On Election Day, November 5, Chambliss won by a convincing 6.87% margin—a victory matched by unprecedented GOP success in state offices the same night, including the Sonny Perdue’s defeat incumbent Governor Roy Barnes, becoming the first Republican Governor in Georgia since 1868. While many Democrats attributed the win to Chambliss campaign’s mudslinging, 2002 proved to be the Georgia Republican Party’s long-awaited breakthrough after some 130 years of Democratic dominance.

Want to find out more? Visit On the Stump on display in the Harrison Feature Gallery in the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries from September 2, 2016 through August 18, 2017. The Russell Library gallery is free and open to the public weekdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. For more information, email or call 706-542-5788.

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