Since the earliest years of the republic, candidates have used deceptive, underhanded and dubiously legal tactics to discredit their opponents.
1800: Jefferson vs. Adams
The 1800 race between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams was a lowly beginning for the new American democracy.
Jefferson was Adams’ vice president from 1797 to 1801. To defeat his boss without personally maligning the president of the United States, Jefferson let a journalist, James Callender, do his dirty work.
Callender wrote rapidly partisan articles for the Richmond Reporter newspaper and in a self-published 1800 anti-Federalist pamphlet called “The Prospect Before Us.” One of his more creative attacks was to question Adams’ masculinity. He accused Adams of being a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Callender’s anti-Federalist publications during the campaign led to his prosecution under the Sedition Act, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. In May 1800, he was sentenced to nine months in jail and a US$200 fine.
This bitter contest between president and vice president occurred because President Adams and Vice President Jefferson came from different political party. Back then, voters picked two candidates for president. The top vote-getter became president, the second-place finisher became vice president.
1828: Adultery, murder and pimping
That didn’t make electoral politics any kinder. The 1828 race between President John Quincy Adams and the southern statesman Andrew Jackson was the United States’ nastiest and most personal election yet.
Democratic President John Quincy Adams lost badly – but not before he did some serious damage to Jackson’s reputation.
Adam’s campaign surrogates accused Jackson of murder and spread rumors that Jackson’s wife, Rachel – who had previously been married to another man – had never really divorced.
“As a result,” political commentator Rick Unger wrote in Forbes magazine in 2012, “the Democratic candidate was accused of being an adulterer and running away with another man’s wife, while Mrs. Jackson was labeled a bigamist.”
Jackson’s team retaliated by accusing Adams, a former ambassador to Russia, of having provided Russian Czar Alexander I up with young American virgins for his sexual pleasure.
These tactics probably amounted to criminal defamation. In the United States, it is unlawful to tarnish a person’s reputation by spreading false information. But there is no evidence that either camp sued.
Kennedy’s dirty tricks
In the modern era, John F. Kennedy found subtler ways to discredit his opponents.
When running for Congress in 1946, Kennedy’s competitors in the Democratic primary included a Boston city councilman named Joseph Russo. Kennedy’s father, the formidable and ambitious Joseph Kennedy, paid a janitor named Joseph Russo to run for Congress as well.
In the confusion over which Russo was the legitimate politician, votes were split. Kennedy won his seat.
Later, when Kennedy was a presidential candidate in 1960, his aides raised the temperature in the TV studio where he would soon face off against Vice President Richard Nixon in the nation’s first-ever televised debate. The Kennedy campaign knew that Nixon suffered from hyperhidrosis, a medical condition that causes a person to easily sweat.
As Nixon perspired and struggled under the bright lights and high heat, Kennedy looked cool, calm and sweat-free.
Nixon had been politically pranked before.
Dick Tuck, a notorious Democratic Party trickster, was “known to pose as a fire marshal at Nixon appearances and give reporters low estimates for the size of the crowds,” according to his obituary by Reuters.
As president, Nixon’s team would excel at much dirtier tricks.
To defeat Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the 1972 election, Nixon operatives caused trouble for his campaign in ingenious ways.
At a fancy fundraising dinner for Democratic vice presidential candidate Edmund Muskie, Republican tricksters ordered the delivery of $300 in liquor, 200 pizzas and even a couple magicians – much to the dismay of organizers and the shock of the 1,300 very proper attendees.
The dirty tricks tradition continued into the 21st century, sometimes within the same party.
During the 2000 Republican presidential primary, George W. Bush’s campaign strategist Karl Rove spread rumors in South Carolina that John McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter was his “illegitimate black child.”
In 2010, an Arizona Republican political operative named Steve May recruited homeless people to run for several offices on the Green Party ticket, hoping to split the liberal vote. Angry Democrats said that nominating “sham” candidates violated state and federal election laws.
That case didn’t go to trial, but some dirty campaign tricks have spurred legal action.
After the Democratic-aligned Alabama lawyer Garve Ivey Jr. in 1998 allegedly paid a call girl to file a false rape claim against the GOP’s candidate for lieutenant governor, Steve Windom, Ivey was charged with criminal defamation, bribery and witness tampering. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $1,000.
While that misdemeanor conviction was later overturned, Ivey was disbarred in 2011 and later jailed on unrelated charges of misusing client funds.
The lesson here?
The ethical standard for election campaigns in the United States has always been low. Modern techniques like email hacking may be new, but using surrogates to trash your opponent is an electoral strategy as old as the republic itself.