In The Campaign, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis take part in deprecating campaign ads and ridiculous accusations that would do Joseph McCarthy proud. But there is some basis in history for their fictional hijinks.
In honor of good, old-fashioned unfair play, here are some of the most controversial campaign tricks in American history.
Nixon paints it pink
Richard Nixon earned himself a reputation as commie-buster after his aggressive cross-examination of alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss in 1948.
Two years later, the Californian ran for a Senate seat against Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas. The Korean War and the fight against communism were major issues in the campaign. Nixon, who called Douglas “the Pink Lady,” focused on her liberal voting record. Nixon distributed campaign fliers on pink paper comparing Douglas to New York Congressman Vito Marcantonio, a supposed communist. Voting for Douglas, he contended, would be putting another Marcantonio in Congress.
For his political chicanery, Nixon was dubbed “Tricky Dick” by the media.
The other Tricky Dick
One of Nixon’s greatest rivals was Democratic political strategist and noted prankster Dick Tuck.
Tuck worked for Douglas in a 1950 Senate race in California, but he got himself hired by the Nixon campaign. He would operate as a spy for Douglas.
Tuck orchestrated one of his first pranks by organizing a rally at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for Nixon. The rally was intentionally scheduled on a day on which few people could attend; only a few dozen people showed up. Tuck introduced Nixon while making frequent references to Nixon’s red-bashing and then said Nixon would speak about the International Monetary Fund.
Of course, Nixon had not planned to speak about the IMF and was stunned upon walking up to the podium.
You can’t out-Tuck Tuck
Nixon was the victim of many of Tuck’s tricks, so much so that he became increasingly paranoid. Nixon hired Donald Segretti to play Tuck-style hardball for the 1972 election. The pranks were cruel.
Segretti and his crew stole official Maine Senator Ed Muskie letterhead and forged letters accusing Senator Henry Jackson of having a child with a teenager. Hubert Humphrey was also accused of sexual misconduct.
Nixon did win the 1972 election, but Segretti pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges and was sent to prison.
Best of friends, worst of enemies
Despite their close friendship during the American Revolution, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson ran slimy presidential campaigns in 1796 and 1800.
In 1796, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans claimed Adams wanted to become an American king. Adams’ Federalists returned fire by characterizing Jefferson as a demagogue. It was likely George Washington’s support that carried Adams to victory.
Four years later, the Federalists used the Sedition Act to silence the Democratic-Republican press. Personal insults were numerous. Jefferson’s supporters called Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Not to be outdone, Adams asked voters of Jefferson, “Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames… female chastity violated… children writhing on the pike?” Jefferson did prevail this time.
LBJ gets Gold…water
If running dirty campaigns were an Olympic sport, Lyndon Johnson would have won gold in 1964. Historian Joseph Cummins, author of Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises, once declared the Johnson campaign against Barry Goldwater the ugliest he has ever researched.
Johnson created a top-secret group interchangeably called the “anti-campaign” and “five o’clock club” that was dedicated to humiliating Goldwater. The plan was to paint Goldwater as an extreme right-wing radical. The group put out a Goldwater joke book called You Can Die Laughing in which readers could color pictures of Goldwater dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes.
A not-so-good-looking campaign
Stephen Douglas focused immensely on portraying Lincoln as physically unattractive during the 1860 campaign. Douglas called Lincoln a “horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman.” Rumors of Lincoln having stinky feet also ran rampant.
Douglas was not the most physically imposing figure himself, standing just 5 feet, 4 inches tall.
Benjamin Brown is a student of history and American studies at Lafayette College and the assistant sports editor of the school newspaper. He is also in the Public Programs department of the National Constitution Center.
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