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Political rhetric: worse than ever?


I remember my boyhood friend, Dick Stallman, and I, running brazenly down West Oxford Street in our northeastern Ohio steel town of Alliance, midway between Canton and Youngstown; shirt-tails flapping in the breeze, with my little red wagon an arm-length’s behind, bouncing crazily over the bumpy, worn brick-paved surface, as we shouted “We want Dewey, we want Dewey!” It was 1944.

And, I have no idea on earth why we 10-year old’s were campaigning for him.

Few of you may know or remember Thomas Edmund Dewey unless you’re in your eighties, maybe upper seventies, or a political junky. Dewey was the 47th Governor of New York, and who later as Republican candidate for President in 1948, lost to President Harry Truman in one of the greatest upsets in presidential election history.

When folks went to bed that election night, Dewey by all counts had won. In fact, all the pollsters and analysts and the media had been decreeing it for days. Sound familiar? Next morning, Truman, grinning broadly, was pictured holding high a copy of Chicago Tribune’s early edition with the banner headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” Truman had actually won by just over two million votes. Dewey was toast. The same Dewey whom my wagon and I were ‘campaigning’ for in ’44 who was then running against Franklin D. Roosevelt. He lost then too.

Dad was a mailman and FDR was his boss, so I would think he’d have been a supporter of the man who helped put Wheaties in my breakfast bowl with the red elephants imprinted inside on its bottom. But I must be wrong about that because where else would I had heard good things about Dewey except around the dinner table?

Perhaps I overheard commentator Lowell Thomas on the big Philco radio in our living room, as Dad sat and listened each evening after dinner? Or maybe in our local paper, though most headlines then were still about the War as I recall. No, it must have been those elephants in my bowl! I’m jesting here of course. My elephants could just as well have been donkeys or camels or circus animals. They had no political significance as far as I know. They were there to coerce we children of the depression to discover them by finishing every last drop of milk.

All of this comes to mind as we find ourselves helplessly trapped in a 2016 un-Presidential campaign that itself seems more circus than cycle. Surely campaign rhetoric of the past must have been more civil than today’s rants of “she’s a liar,” “he’s unfit,” “she killed her cell phones with a hammer,” “he’s a racist, ” “she had a server in her basement,” “he has bats in his belfry.” And on and on, as we finally approach November 8, 2016 a few short days hence. Campaigns and candidates surely were more civil in the good old days!

“Not on your life,” says Rick Ungar, senior political Forbes contributor and frequent TV talker: “When it comes to negative campaign advertising and rhetoric, today’s candidates aren’t even in the same league as our own Founding Fathers—and the many presidential contenders who have followed—when it comes to playing rough in the game of electoral politics.”

Ungar points to John Adams and Tom Jefferson as the culprits who introduced negative campaigning in 1800. Here are a couple of examples he cites: —-A John Adams supporter publically suggested that were Jefferson to become the president, “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.” —A Connecticut newspaper warned that electing Jefferson would create a nation where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.” And that, says Ungar, was ‘the soft stuff.’ During the legendary debates between Stephen Douglas and Abe Lincoln, he cites Douglas as accusing Lincoln of being “a drunk” who would “ruin more liquor than all the boys in town together.”

There are many more examples of negative attacks recited by historians. But the long and short of it is that little has changed over the years when it comes to campaign rhetoric. Presidential elections just seem to bring out the uglies as tensions rise, candidates vent, and days grow short, before we sally forth to vote.

As an old political campaign worker, permit me to make this suggestion: Don’t be afraid to speak out in behalf of your favorite candidate, to attempt to persuade others to join you. To volunteer. Ring doorbells. Knock on doors. Text. Phone. Tweet. To pull your red wagon down the street! That is how and why winners win! Just keep it civil.

Several Christmas’s ago I bought my wife her own 21st Century red wagon to use for gardening. She is also an active political supporter and voter. My greatest concern is that between now and the eighth of November I may awaken from my afternoon nap to find her running down the sidewalk lickitysplit, pulling her little red wagon behind her, shouting “We Want ——-!” So, it behooves me to remind her that octagenerians stand the risk of being put away for such public displays. On the other hand, I will also take a moment to re-check her cereal bowl to see what’s in the bottom. I know what’s in mine, and I may just join her for one more run down the street.

By Mel Grossman

Mell Grossman is a local resident and guest columnist.