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Obama, Romney attack ads meek compared mud-slinging of yore

John Robson, Parliamentary Bureau

In recent weeks, the gloves have come off in the U.S. presidential election, revealing - nasty attack ads? Vacuity? Dishonesty? Or just more gloves?

Compare 2012's gentle hints about inability to understand the private sector or reluctance to pay high taxes with this blast at the Democratic candidate in 1828: "General Jackson's mother was a common prostitute brought to this country by British soldiers. She afterward married a mulatto with whom she had many children, of whom Gen. Jackson is one."

Or fellow Democrat Davy Crockett's later comment that Jackson's VP and successor Martin Van Buren "is to Gen. Jackson as dung to a diamond."

Then there's Federalist leader Fisher Ames's expectation that with Jefferson in the White House in 1801, Americans would soon smell "the loathsome steam of human victims offered in sacrifice."

Mind you, Jefferson called his rival John Adams "sometimes absolutely mad" - an opinion Ben Franklin, one of America's founding fathers, shared.

Even George Washington, the first U.S. president, was called a "crocodile", a "hyena" and a "traitor" by journalists he denounced as "infamous scribblers."

Then there was the time president Abraham Lincoln was branded a baboon by his own secretary of war, to which Honest Abe coolly replied, "What troubles me most" is that Edwin Stanton, who said it, "is usually right."

Things calmed down a bit after the Civil War without getting any smarter. Witness the edifying exchange of chants in 1884: "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine," and, "Ma, ma, where's my pa?" Victorious Democrat Grover Cleveland apparently sired a child with a woman who was not his wife, while Republican James Blaine had been most untruthful in his dealings with a continental railroad. But only a bit.

In 1920, Democrats resurrected the racial slur earlier aimed at Jackson, claiming Republican Warren Harding was part black. When asked, Harding laughed and said, "How should I know?" But he wasn't going to carry any southern states anyway.

To be sure, these campaign calumnies weren't technically "ads" in the modern sense, even when produced by the professional campaign staffs who've been slinging mud since at least 1840.

You needed mass media, particularly TV, to get things like the all-time classic Lyndon Johnson "Daisy" spot suggesting Republican Barry Goldwater would get the U.S. into a nuclear war.

That ad was so hard-hitting it only ran once, but generated the sort of buzz campaign managers dream of. (For some reason, my students giggle at it. Whether it's so powerful they're nervous or so naive they're amused, you can determine by watching it online.)

Followers of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan might claim TV has contributed to singularly mindless mean-spiritedness. But, really, if you think your opponent would destroy civilization, you would be remiss not to mention it during the campaign.

And when a fellow Democratic senator memorably tagged Republican Richard Nixon's 1972 opponent George McGovern "the candidate of acid, amnesty and abortion," it was technically not an ad. But it wasn't very nice. Or very wrong. And it stuck.

Perhaps journalists are unreasonably sympathetic to attack ads because a) they are easy to cover without tedious research, b) we, too, make a living attacking politicians and c) we are mean, bitter people. However, I still insist that attack ads deserve respect because the bad things politicians say about their rivals are far more likely to be true than the good things they say about themselves.

Besides, a great attack ad is not necessarily mean-spirited. Voters recoil from bubbling venom, like the infamous Canadian Progressive Conservative ad mocking Jean Chretien's face. But a great ad is necessarily pointed. Like Ronald Reagan's 1984 "Bear in the woods," which in moderate, measured tones painted Democrats as incurable chumps.

Remember, partisans on both sides think a lot is at stake in almost every election. Including the 2012 American presidential contest, where neither party seems enthusiastic about its own candidate, but both think the other guy, the other party and the other party's philosophy would be very bad for their country.

It is neither surprising or blameworthy that they are working hard to get that message out to their fellows. And nobody is raving about human sacrifice or prostitutes. Instead, they've peeled off the boxing gloves to reveal kid gloves.