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PRESIDENTS UNDER FIRE
Barack Obama, of course, is not the first president to have experienced withering personal attacks. They are as old as the presidency itself. In some ways, they are a tribute to our American experiment. Unlike forced allegiance to a monarch or tyrant, criticism of elected leaders is not only tolerated here; it is considered a necessary function of our democracy. And from the moment the first president took office, U.S. presidents have had to deal with sometimes-nasty attacks. In this day and age, all of us, Democrats, Republicans, and Tea Partiers alike, revere our Founding Fathers. We even put them on a pedestal. But that’s not how they were treated in their own day. Not even Saint George Washington.
It was an open secret that Thomas Jefferson, as our first secretary of state, tried to undermine President Washington’s declared policy of neutrality in the matter of war between France and Great Britain. From his position in the cabinet, Jefferson worked behind the scenes, helping orchestrate Republican opposition to Washington and trying to turn public opinion toward the position of siding with France.
Once Washington left the White House, our first president became an open target of abuse. He was publicly mocked and criticized as being weak and ineffective. Rumors resurfaced that he had enjoyed an affair with a young cleaning woman, whom he called “pretty little Kate, the Washer-woman’s daughter.” The Philadelphia Aurora, the chief Republican newspaper, heavily influenced by Jefferson, described Washington’s farewell address as “the loathings of a sick mind.” Its publisher, Benjamin Franklin Bache, revived charges that Washington had assassinated an unarmed officer during the French and Indian War and accused Washington of offering America nothing better than a “despotic counterfeit of the English Georges.”
Writing in the Aurora, the one and only Thomas Paine even questioned Washington’s leadership of the Revolutionary army, deeming him worse than a sunshine patriot. “You slept away your time in the field till the finances of the country were completely exhausted,” he charged, “and you have but little share in the glory of the event.” Paine demanded that Washington ask himself “whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.”
Ouch! Watching from a distance, Abigail Adams was appalled by the attacks on our first president. It just proved, she wrote her husband, Vice President John Adams, “that the most virtuous and unblemished Characters are liable to the Malice and venom of unprincipald [sic] Wretches.” And, of course, she was afraid of what level of attacks might fall on her husband, who enjoyed nowhere near the popularity of the haloed Washington. She later warned Adams that, as president, he might well find himself “being fastned [sic] up Hand and foot and Tongue to be shot at as our Quincy Lads do at the poor Geese and Turkies.” And, indeed, he was.
Adams was no fool. He knew he would be in for a rough time. As he wrote Abigail of the departing George Washington after his inauguration, “He seemed to enjoy a triumph over me. Methought I heard him think, ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!’”
As vice president, Adams had already endured his share of ridicule, some of which he brought on himself. After suggesting to Congress that Washington be called “Your Highness,” rather than the populist “Mr. President,” Adams was henceforth called “The Duke of Braintree,” or simply “His Rotundity.” Privately, Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania dismissed Adams as “a monkey just put into breeches.”
After eight years of running interference for President Washington against Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the last thing John Adams needed when he himself assumed the presidency was having to put up with Jefferson as vice president. But that’s what the electoral vote delivered, after a noncontested and practically nonexistent presidential campaign. Still trying to figure out the proper way to choose leaders in the new republic, neither Adams nor Jefferson declared their candidacy or campaigned for the office. Once their new roles were decided, however, the two leaders, from different political parties and with separate agendas, were bound to clash—and did.
At first, heeding his wife Abigail’s advice, Adams held forth an olive branch to Jefferson, offering him cabinet status, a major voice in foreign policy, and designation of him or his ally James Madison as the new American envoy to France. But Jefferson rejected all three, choosing to pursue his Republican party agenda instead.
As Joseph Ellis reports in First Family, Jefferson was, in fact, already in clandestine conversations with the French consul in Philadelphia, urging him to ignore any peace initiatives from the new president—since, according to Jefferson, Adams did not speak for the true interests of the American people. Just imagine! Today, this act would be considered treason.
There followed a rocky four years, during which Adams was constantly fighting rear-guard actions by his disloyal vice president, who was busy plotting with the French, and by his own cabinet (he had mistakenly retained all appointees of Washington, believing the cabinet should be a permanent body). It was all too much for First Lady Abigail Adams, who lamented the steady stream of “Lies, falsehoods, calamities and bitterness” and denounced Philadelphia as “a city that seems devoted to Calamity.”
And it led, inevitably, to the first contested election for president, in 1800, and one of the ugliest presidential campaigns ever.
For the incumbent vice president to challenge the incumbent president for reelection was, in itself, a direct personal attack. It’d be as if Dick Cheney had dared to run against George W. Bush in 2004. Today, that would never happen. It would be considered inappropriate, in bad taste, even treacherous. But back then, the country was new, and people were still feeling their way around the political process.
Even before the campaign, intrigue began. Adams first had to defend himself from a scurrilous attack by fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton that he had, in effect, begun to lose his mind. Adams’s “ungovernable temper,” matched by his “disgusting egotism” and “distempered jealousy,” Hamilton charged in his Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States, were characteristics that “unfit him for the office of chief magistrate.”
But his strongest challenge came from Vice President Thomas Jefferson and Republicans. Determined to weaken, if not destroy, Adams’s reputation ahead of any actual campaigning, Jefferson commissioned fiery pamphleteer James Callender to wield the political ax.
As I noted in my first book, Spin This!, Callender—who would later turn on Jefferson and charge him with sexual abuse of slave Sally Hemings—published The Prospect Before Us, in which he accused Adams of corruption and secretly attempting to lead the United States into war, which was the exact opposite of what Adams was fighting for. In his private life, charged Callender, Adams was “one of the most egregious fools upon the continent.” Then, in typical Callender style, he vilified the president as “a repulsive pedant,… a gross hypocrite,… a wretch that has neither the science of a magistrate, the politeness of a courtier, nor the courage of a man.”
With that, the stage was set. And once the Adams-Jefferson campaign got under way, neither side held back. Because of his known aversion to any established religion—he was a Deist—Jefferson was accused of being an atheist. Not to mention a Francophile (guilty), a revolutionist, and a man devoid of morals, whose election would deliver the country to licentiousness and debauchery and who, if elected, would immediately order the confiscation of Bibles and the burning of churches. Almost in anticipation of the questions raised about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, Adams supporters called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” George Washington stayed above the fray, but not Martha. She couldn’t resist jumping on the bandwagon, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was “one of the most detestable of mankind.”
The Jefferson camp, meanwhile, responded in kind, accusing President Adams of being unpatriotic because he opposed joining France in another war with Great Britain and, here at home, wanted to maintain a standing army. He was also charged with wanting to turn the presidency into a monarchy and with planning to marry one of his sons to a daughter of George III, thus starting an American dynasty that would reunite the country with Great Britain.
As the great historian Page Smith relates in his magnificent two-volume life of Adams, another rumor more amused than annoyed him. Republicans accused Adams of sending Gen. Charles Pinckney to England in a United States frigate to procure four pretty girls as mistresses, two for the general and two for himself. “I do declare upon my honor,” Adams responded, “if this be true General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of two.”
At the same time, Jefferson’s backers also questioned Adams’s sexuality. Campaign brochures repeated James Callender’s description of Adams as being of “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Jefferson, of course, won that round and became our third president. A bitter Adams didn’t wait around for his archenemy to take the oath of office. On Inauguration Day, 1801, he left early in the morning to return to Massachusetts.
Once in the White House, Jefferson had his own political enemies to deal with, and few more lethal than the beast he created, notorious once and future mudslinger James Callender. When refused a presidential appointment, Callender turned on the man who had once paid him to smear John Adams, accusing the refined “gentleman” of Monticello of having sexual relations with his slave Sally Hemings and fathering her children. Which, of course, was true. For Abigail Adams, this was the revenge she’d been looking for. “The serpent you cherished and warmed,” she wrote much later to Jefferson, “bit the hand that nourished him.”
The point is, over-the-top political invective was here from the beginning, directed against, and even exercised by, some of the most revered figures in the American political pantheon. And it wasn’t always just verbal. Too often, it got physical. Not yet in the White House, perhaps, but, from its earliest days, on the floor of the United States Congress. Norm Ornstein, who follows Congress from his perch at the American Enterprise Institute, has documented many cases where debate over issues degenerated into acts of physical violence between members of Congress. Among the more colorful and memorable are:
• Lyon v. Griswold. On January 30, 1798, debate over whether the United States should enter the ongoing war between France and England on the side of France escalated into a shouting match between Matthew Lyon, Republican of Vermont, and Roger Griswold, Federalist from Connecticut. At one point, Lyon, a tobacco chewer, like many other members of Congress, spit tobacco in Griswold’s face. Two weeks later, on February 15, Griswold responded by attacking Lyon with a hickory cane. At which point, Lyon picked up a pair of fireplace tongs and struck back. Neither one was expelled from Congress.
• Black v. Giddings, 1845. We only know about this incident thanks to John Quincy Adams, who recorded it in his diary. As Representative Joshua R. Giddings, an Ohio Whig, was speaking on the floor, Representative Edward J. Black, a Democrat from Georgia, “crossed over from his seat … and, coming within the bar behind Giddings as he was speaking, made a pass at the back of his head with a cane.” Adams reported that Representative William H. Hammett of Mississippi then “threw his arms round [Black] and bore him off as he would a woman from a fire.”
• Brooks v. Sumner, 1856. This is the most notorious incident of congressional violence in our history. Pro-slavery senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina was the subject of strong verbal attacks from abolitionist senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Over the course of a fiery three-hour speech, Sumner argued that Butler had taken “a mistress who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean, the harlot, Slavery.”
Butler’s relative, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, rallied to his defense. Brooks walked from the House to the Senate floor and beat Sumner senseless with his gutta-percha walking cane. When other senators tried to come to Sumner’s defense, they were stopped by Representative Laurence Keitt, also of South Carolina, who pulled out his pistol and kept them away. After an attempt to expel Brooks from the House failed, he nevertheless resigned his seat, but he ran again and was reelected the following November. Indeed, Brooks subsequently received dozens of canes in the mail from admiring southerners.
For his part, Sumner could not return to the Senate for three years due to his injuries, but he was reelected in 1856 regardless by an equally angry Massachusetts state legislature.
• Tilman v. McLaurin, 1902. South Carolina strikes again. This time, violence between two Democrats from South Carolina. On the Senate floor, Senator John McLaurin accused a fellow South Carolinian, Senator Benjamin Tillman, of telling a “willful, malicious and deliberate lie.” Tillman, known as “Pitchfork Ben,” hauled off and punched McLaurin in the face.
• Thurmond v. Yarborough, 1964. One of the strangest of all physical encounters between members of Congress was a wrestling match between segregationist Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (again!) and Ralph Yarborough of Texas. Thurmond was so determined to prevent the confirmation of LeRoy Collins as President Johnson’s head of the Community Relations Service that he stood outside the door to the Commerce Committee hearing room, blocking other senators from entering. When Yarborough tried to get around him, Thurmond threw Yarborough to the floor. At which point, Chairman Warren Magnuson came to the door and broke up the scuffle. Thurmond won the wrestling match but lost the vote, sixteen to one.
There were many other times, of course, when members of Congress engaged in angry debate. But, perhaps mindful of losing their seats, they stopped just short of coming to blows. In 2003, all but one Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee walked out to protest Chairman Bill Thomas’s lack of notice about markup of a pension bill. Pete Stark of California was left behind to observe the proceedings and report back to his fellow Democrats. When Stark attempted to speak, Congressman Scott McInnis of Colorado told him to “shut up.” At which point, Stark, known for his temper, shouted back, “You think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp? Come on. Come over here and make me, I dare you. You little fruitcake.” In earlier days, that could easily have led to blows with a hickory cane, or worse.
Senator Patrick Leahy showed similar restraint in his famous contretemps with Vice President Dick Cheney in 2004. After a heated exchange over Cheney’s ties to his old firm, Halliburton, and President Bush’s judicial nominees, the veep ended the debate by telling Leahy to “go fuck yourself” and walked away. Cheney later said, “That’s sort of the best thing I ever did.” Leahy did not return fire, which was probably for the best, given that Cheney later shot hunting partner Harry Whittington in the face.
MEET YOU IN BLADENSBURG
These are just the fisticuffs that happened in the halls of Congress. Too often in our early history, political disagreements escalated from the verbal to the physical—all the way to the fatal.
By the late 1700s, in fact, settling disputes with a duel had become an accepted part of the culture, especially in the South, as a way of finally deciding an argument. Like many other features of American politics, the practice was introduced from Europe, where the codo duello contained twenty-six rules governing proper etiquette between dueling partners.
Most duels were usually conducted in a remote location, with just the principals and their seconds present. But duels among politicians were often widely publicized in advance. For members of Congress, the preferred location was Bladensburg, Maryland, only eight miles from Washington, favored both for its isolation and its proximity to the Capitol, where dueling was already banned.
As the century turned, public opinion began to turn against dueling in state after state. But not before several members of Congress had fallen victims to it. In The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals, & Dirty Politics, Kim Long documents some of the more famous cases.
• July 31, 1802. In the middle of a heated reelection campaign, Senator DeWitt Clinton of New York challenged his political opponent, John Swartwout, to a duel. Neither was apparently a good marksman, because both men survived the exchange of five rounds. But Swartwout was hit twice in the leg—and went on to lose the election.
• September 5, 1802. Nearing the end of a nasty reelection campaign, North Carolina congressman Richard Dobbs Spaight complained about his opponent, John Stanly: “I must now gentlemen, declare to you, that in my opinion, Mr. Stanley [sic] is both a lyar and a scoundrel.” To which Stanly responded with the classic challenge to a duel: “To your disappointment, this letter informs you, that humiliating as it is to my feelings, to fight a man who can descend to the filth contained in your handbill, I shall expect that you will meet me as soon as may be convenient.” But first came the vote. Spaight lost. The next day came the duel. Spaight lost that one, too. He was wounded, and died the following day.
• March 2, 1808. Angry over comments made on the House floor during debate over an embargo on trade with Great Britain, New York congressman Barent Gardenier threw the gauntlet down to Tennessee congressman George Washington Campbell. They met with their pistols on the field in Bladensburg. Both survived.
• December 4, 1809. Once again, debate on the floor led to the dueling grounds. This time, debate over negotiations with Spain over the so-called Yazoo lands. John George Jackson, Republican congressman from Virginia, challenged Joseph Pearson, Federalist congressman from North Carolina, to settle their differences at gunpoint. On the second shot, Pearson was seriously wounded; Jackson was permanently crippled from a shot to the hip, and he resigned from Congress.
• February 16, 1819. If at first you don’t succeed … During his campaign, Armistead Thomson Mason, Democratic-Republican Senator from Virginia, had so many angry exchanges with his opponent, John Mason McCarty, that they challenged each other to, and carried out, several duels. In their final exchange, held in Bladensburg, Mason was killed by McCarty, who was also his brother-in-law. Go figure.
• April 8, 1826. Another debate prompted by heated words on the floor of the House of Representatives. After President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay proposed that representatives of the United States participate in a Pan-American conference in Panama called by Venezuelan leader Simón Bolívar, Virginia representative John Randolph let fly a colorful condemnation of Clay: “Like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, [Clay] shined and stunk.” Clay challenged; Randolph accepted. Both first round shots missed their target. Clay’s second shot also missed, whereupon Randolph fired his second shot into the air—and the duel was over.
The most notorious duel in American history took place early on the morning of July 11, 1804, in Weehawken, New Jersey, between the former secretary of the treasury and the sitting vice president of the United States. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were hotheaded political activists and longtime rivals, and both men had been involved in duels in the past. This fatal encounter stemmed from comments Hamilton had allegedly made about the vice president at a dinner party. Those comments were relayed by Charles D. Cooper in a letter to Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler—which letter was somehow leaked and then reprinted in the Albany Register. Burr demanded an apology. Having received none, he challenged Hamilton, and Hamilton accepted.
Because dueling had been outlawed in New York, the participants were rowed across the Hudson from Manhattan to Weehawken, where Hamilton, as challenged, chose to fire first. He fired into the air. Historians will forever debate whether that was his intention, expressed in writing the night before, or whether he just fired wide. At any rate, Burr had no intention of missing. And he didn’t. Hamilton was mortally wounded and taken back to Manhattan, where he died the next day.
What’s still remarkable is that such a prominent political figure was shot and killed and yet nothing happened. The vice president of the United States committed a very public act of murder—and got away with it. Burr was charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, but neither case ever reached trial. After fleeing to South Carolina to hide out with his daughter, he returned to Washington and completed his term as vice president, presiding over the United States Senate.
By the time of the Civil War, dueling was on its way out—now seen not as an honorable way to resolve a dispute, but as cold-blooded murder.
Words became the new weapon of choice. More and more ugly words were directed against elected officials. Every president, Republican and Democrat, has suffered the slings and arrows of public abuse. But before Barack Obama, three presidents in particular experienced the worst verbal attacks: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton.
PRESIDENT ABRAHAM LINCOLN
The Lincoln Memorial, at the western end of the Washington Mall, is the closest thing we Americans have to a national religious shrine. Some would argue, in fact, that it’s our only national shrine.
Indeed, no matter how many times you’ve been there, there’s an out-of-this-world thrill to climbing the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and approaching the magnificent nineteen-foot-high Daniel Chester French sculpture of our sixteenth president, seated and gazing solemnly up the Mall, across the reflecting pool, and, past the Washington Monument, to the U.S. Capitol.
To Lincoln’s right, etched into the memorial’s walls, is the iconic Gettysburg Address. To his left, on the north side of the chamber, are enshrined the words of what Lincoln himself considered his greatest speech: The second inaugural address, the closest we Americans have ever come to the delineation of a national theology, with its admonition to go forward “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”
There are no signs telling visitors to speak softly. But they do so anyway, automatically, somehow sensing the almost-holy nature of the place. They take time to read every word of the sacred American scripture on the walls. They stand in awe before the Great Emancipator, holding young children in their arms for a close look, gazing up at him with the same hushed reverence tourists show Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica.
There’s a reason why. It is a place that resonates with all that is best in our American democracy. On Saturday morning, April 9, 2011, when President Obama wanted to remind the American people that Congress had failed to shut down the government and that the people’s government was still open for business, he went to the Lincoln Memorial.
Yet surely Abraham Lincoln, with his wonderful sense of humor, would appreciate the irony behind every visitor’s presence were he alive today. If only they knew what a remarkable contrast they represent. How we revere Abraham Lincoln today. But how reviled he was during his own lifetime.
The Lincoln literature is full of examples of the personal attacks directed against our sixteenth president. Larry Tagg, author of The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln, even calls him “America’s most reviled president.” In Tagg’s reading of history, the weeks surrounding Lincoln’s inaugural—due to both the frightening secession of southern states and the widespread condemnation of the way he was secretly whisked into the capital wearing a disguise—mark “the historical nadir of presidential prestige in the United States.”
Criticism began with his physical appearance. Later, cartoonists had fun with Nixon’s nose, Jimmy Carter’s teeth, and Barack Obama’s ears. But nothing compared to the personal attacks on Lincoln.
British journalist Edward Dicey reported in 1862, “To say he is ugly is nothing; to add that his figure is grotesque is to convey no adequate impression. Fancy a man almost six feet high, and thin out of proportion, with long bony arms and legs, which somehow seem to be always in the way.” As if that weren’t enough, Dicey continued: “Add to this figure a head, cocoanut shaped, and somewhat too small for such a stature, covered with rough, uncombed hair, that stands out in every direction at once; a face, furrowed, wrinkled, and indented as though it had been scarred by vitriol.”
Lincoln’s political enemies welcomed him to Washington with a mock biography: “Mr. Lincoln stands six feet tall in his socks, which he changes once every ten days. His anatomy is composed mostly of bones, and when walking he resembles the offspring of a happy marriage between a derrick and a windmill.… His head is shaped something like a rutabaga, and his complexion is that of a Saratoga trunk.… He can hardly be called handsome, though he is certainly much better looking since he had the small-pox.”
Authentic American journals of the time treated him no more kindly. Here’s how readers of the Kentucky Statesman were introduced to their new president: “Abraham Lincoln is a man above the medium height. He passes the six foot mark by an inch or two. He is raw-boned, shamble-gaited, bow-legged, knock-kneed, pigeon-toed, slob-sided, a shapeless skeleton in a very tough, very dirty, unwholesome skin.… His lips protrude beyond the natural level of the face, but are pale and smeared with tobacco juice. His teeth are filthy.”
Gen. George B. McClellan, Lincoln’s chosen head of the Army of the Potomac and later his opponent in 1864, didn’t need that many words. He simply called him “the Gorilla.” And according to Virginian congressman Sherrard Clemens, who met him days before the inauguration, Lincoln carried himself like “a cross between a sandhill crane and an Andalusian jackass.”
By the time he faced reelection, Lincoln had a record, including an ongoing, bloody, and unpopular Civil War and an Emancipation Proclamation, to defend. All of which provided his political enemies with more ammunition and more targets to attack.
Even some Republicans, fearful of defeat, turned on Lincoln. In what became known as the Wade-Davis Manifesto, Radical Republicans Ben Wade and Henry Winter Davis charged Lincoln with “grave Executive usurpation” and “a studied outrage on the legislative authority.” They further accused him of “personal ambition” and “sinister motives,” and urged the Republican party either to impeach him or dump him as their candidate. Tagg calls it “the fiercest, most public challenge to Lincoln’s—or, for that matter, any president’s—authority ever issued by members of his own party.”
Once the campaign got under way, the Democratic press was equally vicious. “The most powerful monarchy in Europe would not dare commit the outrages which have been put upon us by the Lincoln administration,” declared the Illinois State Register.
Cried the Newark Evening Journal, “We have no honeyed words for such a ruler as Abraham Lincoln who is a perjured traitor, who has betrayed his country and caused the butchery of hundreds of thousands of the people of the United States in order to accomplish either his own selfish purpose, or to put in force a fanatical, impracticable idea.”
From Wisconsin, the Lacrosse Democrat prayed, “May God forbid that we are to have two terms of the rottenest, most stinking ruin-working small pox ever conceived by friends or mortals.”
Those savage comments from the American press were echoed by their influential British counterparts. The London Evening Standard blasted Lincoln as a “foul-tongued and ribald punster,” and also as “the most despicable tyrant of modern days,” while the Leeds Intelligencer portrayed him as “that concentrated quintessence of evil, that Nero in the most shrunken and detestable form of idolatry, that flatulent and indecent jester.”
In the end, a sympathetic but exasperated Harper’s Weekly took upon itself the obligation to sum up all the names President Lincoln was called by his political enemies: “Filthy Story-Teller, Ignoramus Abe, Despot, Old Scoundrel, Big Secessionist, Perjurer, Liar, Robber, Thief, Swindler, Braggart, Tyrant, Buffoon, Fiend, Usurper, Butcher, Monster, Land-Pirate, A Long, Lean, Lank, Lantern-Jawed, High-Cheek-Boned, Spavined, Rail-Splitting Stallion.” And that was just a warm-up for what would be leveled against Barack Obama.
Lincoln, of course, won reelection with 55 percent of the vote and overwhelmingly carried the Electoral College, 212–21. This news was greeted with bitterness by the Richmond Dispatch: “Yesterday … the freest people on earth … made a formal surrender of their liberties … to a vulgar tyrant … whose personal qualities are those of a low buffoon.”
But within five months, on April 9, it was the South that surrendered. Then, just five days later, Lincoln lay dying from an assassin’s bullet, and public opinion turned completely around. In the words of historian Larry Tagg, the most hated man in America became a “sudden saint.”
The previous May, for example, the New York Times had lamented in an editorial, “No living man was ever charged with political crimes of such multiplicity and such enormity as Abraham Lincoln. He has been denounced without end as a perjurer, a usurper, a tyrant, a subverter of the Constitution, a destroyer of the liberties of his country, a reckless desperado, a heartless trifler over the last agonies of an expiring nation.”
But no longer. Fellow Republican and onetime political opponent Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa spoke for all his former detractors: “Mr. Lincoln is to be hereafter regarded as a saint. All his foibles, and faults, and shortcomings, will be forgotten, and he will be looked upon as the Moses who led the nation through a four years’ bloody war, and died in sight of peace.” And he has been.
In an interesting twist of history, it would take another president from Illinois to match the record of Abraham Lincoln for political opprobrium directed against him. Perhaps Barack Obama realized that on February 10, 2007, when he chose the Old State Capital in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln’s original political stomping grounds, to announce he was running for president. Obama was steeling himself for the onslaught that lay ahead.
FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT
There are many reputable historians who insist that history never repeats itself. Barack Obama and Franklin Roosevelt have proved them wrong. The challenges FDR faced as president, the actions he took, and the opposition he met are uncannily similar to Obama’s situation. Like Obama, FDR came into office with the economy in ruins. And, like Obama, he was denounced as both a socialist and a Communist for trying to use the resources of the federal government to prevent complete collapse and get the economy back on track. Even today, FDR is still called thus. In April 2011, Republican congressman Paul Broun of Georgia argued on the House floor that Roosevelt held “socialist beliefs” and had mimicked Stalin to replicate Russian communism in America.
Like Obama, FDR faced a so-called “grassroots” opposition that was, in fact, funded by a team of brothers and their corporate fat-cat friends. For Obama, it’s the Koch Brothers and the Tea Party. For FDR, it was the du Pont Brothers and the American Liberty League.
Like Obama, FDR also encountered serious criticism and opposition from members of his own party, who slammed him for not doing enough to help poor and middle-class Americans. Huey Long, the “Kingfish,” was FDR’s equivalent of Obama’s modern-day critics on the “professional left,” as former press secretary Robert Gibbs deemed them.
And, like Obama, FDR suffered from the relentless attacks of a popular talk-radio host. As I related in my last book, Toxic Talk, Father Charles Coughlin, the “Radio Priest,” was the prototype for Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck today.
There are differences, of course. And they are real. FDR was much more bold and daring in his use of executive power. And neither the Liberty League nor Huey Long ever achieved the electoral clout of the Tea Party. But the parallel challenges of FDR and Barack Obama are still strikingly similar.
When FDR was elected in 1932, the nation was still reeling from our longest, most widespread, and deepest economic downturn ever. Taking the oath of office on March 4, 1933, he in effect declared war on the Depression. If Congress did not act decisively, he warned, he was ready to ask for “broad emergency powers to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”
And Congress, goaded by him and a long-suffering public, rose to the occasion. As documented by Anthony Badger in his valuable study of the period, FDR: The First Hundred Days, by June 16, after only one hundred days, “sixteen pieces of major legislation gave the federal government the power to decide which banks should or should not reopen, to regulate the Stock Exchange, to determine the gold value of the dollar, to prescribe minimum wages and prices, to pay farmers not to produce, to pay money to the unemployed, to plan and regenerate a whole river basin across six states, to spend billions of dollars on public works, and to underwrite credit for bankers, homeowners, and farmers.”
At first, leaders of the hard-hit business community supported FDR. But within a year, his expansion of government powers had stirred up great resistance among many of them, who accused Roosevelt of manufacturing an artificial crisis in order to justify an unprecedented expansion of federal power and regulation. Sound familiar?
Leading his newly avowed political enemies were scions of one of the wealthiest families in the nation: Delaware’s three du Pont brothers—Pierre, Irénée, and Lammot. Irénée complained about efforts by the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate free market activity. Pierre feared the National Labor Board’s support for the workers’ right to strike. Irénée summed up their opposition in a letter to a friend: “It must now have become clear to every thinking man that the so-called ‘New Deal,’ advocated by the Administration, is nothing more or less than the Socialistic doctrine called by another name.” Creeping socialism. Again, sound familiar?
The reality is that FDR’s New Deal did not kill capitalism. It saved capitalism. The president refused to nationalize the banks, for example, as many on the Left demanded, then and now. Instead, banks emerged from the crisis stronger and more stable than ever. So did Wall Street’s financial institutions, able to attract new investors only because of their confidence in the new regulations in place.
We saw the same overreaction to actions taken by President Obama to rescue the economy from the collapse of October 2008. He, too, was accused of using a crisis to grab unprecedented federal government powers. Yet he didn’t seize control of the banks or auto companies. He loaned them money so that they might weather the crisis and get back on their feet. They are now both back, stronger than ever, and have paid back their loans—with interest! And corporate profits jumped to a record high. Like FDR, Obama, too, saved capitalism.
But as we will see, that didn’t silence his critics. Nor did it FDR’s. In an eerie preview of what we would see from Obama’s corporate enemies and the Tea Party, the du Pont Brothers invited their fellow corporate chieftains to meetings at the Empire State Building and the General Motors headquarters in Detroit. They banded together to disseminate information about the “danger to investors” presented by the New Deal. Their goal was to “combat radicalism, preserve property rights, uphold and defend the Constitution.” They pledged to form alliances with other defenders of the Constitution, including the American Legion and “even the Ku Klux Klan.” And they called it the American Liberty League.
In short, the Liberty League of FDR’s time was the Tea Party of today. Only the players are different. Otherwise, they are exactly the same: a big business political attack squad masquerading as a grassroots organization, and hiding behind an oft-professed reverence for the Constitution.
And, like the Tea Party, the Liberty League eventually attracted the support of many working-class Americans, blissfully ignorant of the fact that they were merely being used as political pawns by big corporations that were, in fact, their worst enemies. FDR himself sardonically noted that the Liberty League’s stated mission was notably silent “about the protection of the individual against elements in the community that seek to enrich themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens.”
Then, like today, big business eagerly bellied up to the bar. At the request of the du Pont brothers, CEOs not only kicked in corporate funds; they even wrote letters to their shareholders, asking them to contribute. As documented by historian Kim Phillips-Fein in Invisible Hands, this was the foundation of the corporate-funded conservative movement of today. In 1935, more than half the Liberty League’s funds came from fewer than two dozen bankers, industrialists, and businessmen. Members of the du Pont family contributed 30 percent of the total.
The League jumped into the 1936 presidential campaign, supporting Republican Alf Landon. They set up headquarters in the National Press Building in Washington, with branches in all fifty states, and hired fifty staffers. And they amassed what was then a new record of $1.5 million in corporate contributions.
With those funds, the Liberty League launched a no-holds-barred attack to deny FDR a second term. They called the New Deal a “monstrous usurpation of power.” They warned about a “totalitarian” centralization of power. They blasted the Roosevelt administration for “spreading its tentacles over the business and private life of the citizens of the country.” They accused FDR of trying to “redistribute the wealth,” and opposed Social Security as a “gigantic fraud” and an unlawful taking of property from employers. They called the president a socialist and a Communist. In his newspapers, publisher William Randolph Hearst reported that FDR was supported by “the Karl Marx Socialists, the Frankfurter radicals, communists and anarchists, the Tugwell Bolsheviks, the Richberg revolutionists,” and other “enemies of the American system of government.”
But Roosevelt and his political allies didn’t wilt under fire. They fought back with equal verbal vigor. Democrats ridiculed the Liberty League as a “millionaire’s union.” The Democratic party chairman suggested it should actually be called “the American Cellophane League” because, “first it’s a Du Pont product and second, you can see right through it.” And in a historic campaign rally at Madison Square Garden, FDR let loose with his own brand of political bombast.
He identified his corporate foes by name and gloried in their opposition: “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” Big business was willing to spend anything, he charged, to take over the reins of government. But he hastened to warn: “We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”
Then the president defiantly promised an end to the rule of those his cousin Teddy Roosevelt called the “malefactors of great wealth.” “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and lust for power met their match,” FDR declared. “I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.”
When the votes were counted, the du Pont brothers and their American Liberty League certainly had met their master. Franklin Roosevelt won 98.5 percent of the electoral vote, the highest percentage since 1820. He also won the largest number of electoral votes ever recorded at the time, 593 to Alf Landon’s 8. And he won 60.8 percent of the national popular vote.
With FDR’s overwhelming election victory, the American Liberty League was, for all practical purposes, dead. It limped along for another four years, until founder Pierre du Pont finally pulled the plug in 1940, lamenting to its few supporters left, “Perhaps, we were born too soon.” Perhaps they were, indeed.
But FDR didn’t just face a challenge from the Right. For a couple of years, he had to fight off equally vigorous opposition from the Left, in the person of the Kingfish—Louisiana’s populist senator Huey Long. Like the du Ponts, Long had supported Roosevelt for president in 1932, but he soon soured on him—not because Roosevelt exercised too much government power, but because he didn’t exercise enough. In Long’s view, banks were still too powerful, unemployment was still too high, wealth was still concentrated in too few hands, and average Americans were still scraping bottom.
Instead of FDR’s New Deal, the Kingfish proposed a “Share Our Wealth” platform, guaranteeing every American a homestead worth five thousand dollars and a minimum annual income of half that amount—all paid for by higher income, business, and inheritance taxes. It was a popular message in a country still hard-hit by the Depression. Soon there were 27,000 Share Our Wealth chapters, with over eight million members nationally—enough to scare FDR and his political advisers into preparing for a serious threat from the Left: a threat cut abruptly short by the assassination of Huey Long in the Louisiana State Capitol in 1935.
Even before Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House, Huey Long had pioneered the use of regular radio addresses, as governor of Louisiana, to get his message out. He continued the practice, keeping pace with FDR, as head of his own Share Our Wealth movement. So it was only fitting that FDR’s other big populist nemesis was a professional radio broadcaster: Father Charles Coughlin.
As I documented in Toxic Talk, Coughlin was one of the pioneers of today’s right-wing talk radio and, in his day, attracted an audience far exceeding that of any talk-show host today, including Rush Limbaugh. More than forty million people, one-third of the nation at the time, tuned into his weekly broadcasts from the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan. “The Radio Priest” started out a strong supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. In 1933, he exhorted Americans to believe in “Roosevelt or Ruin!” and argued that “The New Deal is Christ’s Deal!” The following year, he called FDR “the answer to many prayers that were sent up last year.”
Eventually, however, the Radio Priest, apparently believing his having a national listenership was tantamount to elected office, felt frozen out of policy decisions that had never been his to make in the first place. He had come to believe that remonetizing silver would be a cure-all for the American economy, and he spoke often about it to his audience. But when Roosevelt cheerfully ignored his silvery prescription for ending the Depression, Coughlin grew embittered. “We were supposed to be partners,” complained Coughlin. “He said he would rely on me. That I would be an important adviser. But he was a liar.”
In 1936, while the du Pont brothers were organizing the American Liberty League behind the candidacy of Alf Landon, Father Coughlin started his own organization, the National Union for Social Justice, and his own political party, the National Union party, to support his candidate for president, North Dakota congressman William Lemke. But, despite his radio appeal, Coughlin’s political debut failed. Lemke did even worse than Landon, garnering only 900,000 popular votes—and no electoral votes.
After this defeat, Coughlin began to unleash his full fury against Roosevelt, calling him “a dangerous citizen of the Republic.” He also spoke harshly of President Roosevelt’s pro-Allied foreign policy leading up to World War II: “He has consorted with the enemies of civilization.… He has deceived the citizens of the United States.… He has transcended the bounds of his Executive position.… He stands revealed as the world’s chief war-monger.”
Unlike today’s radio talk-show hosts, Coughlin did not call the president of the United States a Nazi. But he did compare him to Hitler—unfavorably! As war in Europe drew closer, Coughlin praised Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini. He even adopted their anti-Semitic language, blaming the Great Depression on an “international conspiracy of Jewish bankers” and arguing that the Russian Revolution “was launched and fomented by distinctively Jewish influence.”
Even as news of Nazi atrocities against Jews reached the United States, Coughlin dismissed them or tried to explain them away. “Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted,” he insisted. Like his modern-day successor, Glenn Beck, Coughlin started to lose listeners the crazier his anti-Roosevelt, pro-Germany screeds got. And so, with the outbreak of World War II, and most of his listeners gone, Catholic Church authorities finally forced him to give up his radio broadcasts.
FDR outlived and outfought his political enemies, serving twelve years as president—longer than any president before or since. As late as 1944, he was still a happy warrior, fighting back against his political enemies with wit and verve. When Republicans tried to rewrite the history books by claiming the Depression was a Democratic creation, FDR told America that “there is an old and somewhat lugubrious adage which says: ‘Never speak of rope in the house of a man who has been hanged.’ In the same way, if I were a Republican leader speaking to a mixed audience, the last word in the whole dictionary that I think I would use is that word ‘depression.’” Similarly, when Republicans claimed a dictatorial Roosevelt had sent a destroyer overseas to pick up his dog, Fala, FDR wryly returned fire:
These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress had gone out and concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself—such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog.
Roosevelt was too much for the right-wing onslaught that tried to destroy his New Deal. But this was not the last time an American president would be forced to confront a hate campaign orchestrated by the combined forces of conservative corporate chieftains and extreme right-wing radio hosts. As the right wing gained strength, and as unfettered money obtained more of a foothold in our politics, the corporate-funded hate machine first road tested under Roosevelt grew ever stronger.
WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON
As we have seen, politicians and newspapers alike jumped all over Abraham Lincoln. Big business and talk radio were added to the opposition mix under Franklin Roosevelt. And all four pillars of the right-wing message machine piled on in full force against the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton. The nineties saw a nonstop eight-year fusillade of political invective that foreshadowed what lay in store for Barack Obama. I know many of you remember it well. For those who don’t, the corporate-sponsored blitzkrieg against Clinton has been carefully documented by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons in their definitive The Hunting of the President. As they show, attacks on Clinton were personal from the beginning. They began while he was still governor of Arkansas and running for reelection, but already thinking about running for president in 1992.
Looking over the potential Democratic field, the Republican National Committee chairman, Lee Atwater, whose job was to reelect George H. W. Bush, knew he did not have to worry about Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley, or any other liberal from the Northeast. He feared only a moderate Democratic candidate from the South. And the most dangerous of them all was Governor Clinton.
So Atwater decided to take Clinton down before he could even emerge as a presidential candidate. He recruited Democratic congressman Tommy Robinson to switch political parties and run for governor as a Republican, against his former Democratic ally. He took the unusual position of endorsing Robinson in a contested Republican primary. And he used Robinson as his battering ram against Clinton.
“You boys have to remember, I don’t give a fuck who the governor of Arkansas is,” he told a couple of political operatives from Arkansas who were meeting in his Washington office. “My only job as chairman of the Republican National Committee is to get George Bush reelected.” And then he outlined his plan: “We’re going to take Tommy Robinson and use him to throw everything we can think of at Clinton—drugs, women, whatever works. We may or may not win, but we’ll bust him up so bad he won’t be able to run again for years.”
And so it began. But Atwater overestimated the damage Robinson could do—and underestimated Bill Clinton’s political drive. Having failed to stop Clinton, or even slow him down, Atwater next focused on attempting to prevent him from becoming the Democratic nominee—using all the rumors, innuendos, and slime he and his cohorts had dug up against Clinton in Arkansas, mostly about women, including a Little Rock torch singer named Gennifer Flowers.
With the prodding of Atwater’s agents, plus the enticement of a check for $150,000 from the tabloid newspaper the Star, Flowers popped up on the national scene just before Clinton was widely expected to win the New Hampshire primary. She claimed that she and the governor of Arkansas had conducted a twelve-year-long love affair. A few days later, she followed up with edited audiotapes of telephone conversations with Clinton she’d secretly recorded.
But Clinton refused to be counted out. And, most important, he had a wife who was willing to fight by his side. Bill and Hillary appeared together on an extraordinary 60 Minutes interview with Steve Kroft, in which Clinton acknowledged having caused pain in their marriage but denied the allegation made by Flowers of a twelve-year affair. Two days later, he came in second in New Hampshire, dubbed himself “the Comeback Kid,” and went on to win the Democratic nomination.
But, while unsuccessful in derailing Clinton, the Flowers incident proved that there was some “pain” to be unearthed, and that there were plenty of people willing to pay big money to anyone with information that could destroy or damage his political career. Gennifer Flowers was paid over $500,000 by the Star and Penthouse magazine. Others would pay much more for dirt on Clinton.
First up was Chicago investment banker Peter Smith, a major contributor to Newt Gingrich’s political action committee, GOPAC, who feared Clinton was about to make Bush 41 a one-term president. At the time, Arkansas newspapers and the tabloids were exploding with allegations about Clinton’s sexual misadventures, including one headline in the Globe, BILL CLINTON’S FOUR-IN-A-BED SEX ORGIES WITH BLACK HOOKERS, and a report that he had fathered an illegitimate child with a black prostitute, Bobbie Ann Williams. Smith reportedly put up eighty thousand dollars to get those stories in the mainstream media.
Among those he approached was David Brock, then an investigative reporter for The American Spectator and later the founder of the liberal media watchdog Web site Media Matters for America. Brock looked into the charges but found no evidence—no Bobbie Ann Williams, no illegitimate son—and soon concluded the entire story was a hoax.
Clinton’s enemies then dredged up a wild story that he had raped businesswoman Juanita Broaddrick during a 1978 nursing home convention in Little Rock. Especially coming so close to the 1992 election, it was still an explosive charge. But as Broaddrick kept changing her story, skeptical reporters dismissed the possibility of any criminal activity on Clinton’s part as inconclusive at best.
By this time, there was no stopping Bill Clinton. With the help of mercurial Texas billionaire Ross Perot, he defeated George H. W. Bush and, like FDR before him, assumed the office of president of the United States after twelve years of Republican rule. But that didn’t deter his political enemies. Knowing they could not defeat Clinton on the policy level, they redoubled their efforts to destroy him personally—and wealthy Republicans, led by banker Peter Smith, once again called on David Brock.
Flash forward to August 1993. Brock had already published a conservative bestseller, The Real Anita Hill, and was considered the go-to guy for political smear campaigns when Smith approached him and offered to fund a whole new line of attack: reports that four of Clinton’s former Arkansas state trooper body guards had procured countless women to have sex with him while he was still governor—and that they were willing to talk about it.
The result was Brock’s so-called Troopergate article (“Living with the Clintons”) in The American Spectator, and the beginning of a series of right wing–funded scandals that plagued Clinton until the day he left the White House—largely financed by a man far wealthier than Peter Smith.
The Spectator itself was another rich man’s playpen, founded in 1967 by conservative trust fund baby R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. Thanks largely to Brock, it had become what Conason and Lyons call “the premier venue for right-wing muckraking” by the time Clinton had reached the White House. But Tyrell’s resources were limited. In order to continue, lead, and expand the personal assault on Clinton, he needed bigger bucks. Enter reclusive Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
Heir to the Mellon family banking, oil, and steel fortune, Scaife had, through his foundations, already spent some $300 million to help build a powerful conservative movement when he was approached by Tyrell’s agents to fund a secret special operation at the Spectator—known, inside the magazine, as “the Arkansas Project.” Already an early supporter of the magazine and a self-professed political enemy of Clinton’s, Scaife readily signed on. Over the next four years, he pumped $2.4 million into this Spectator-based conspiracy to ruin the president of the United States. As he told friends, his goal was simple: “to get that goddamn guy out of the White House.”
Scaife, of course, failed in his long-term goal. But, in the short term, he succeeded in making Clinton’s presidency hell. It all started with charges by Little Rock businessman David Hale, duly reported in the Spectator, that Clinton had “pressured” him into making an illegal $300,000 loan to Jim and Susan McDougal to cover Bill and Hillary’s investment in a vacation-home development called “Whitewater Estates.”
Little did Scaife realize what an avalanche of events, ending in Clinton’s impeachment, he had triggered.
• Republicans demanded that Attorney General Janet Reno appoint a “special prosecutor” to investigate Whitewater—even though they had voted two years earlier to abolish the position of independent counsel.
• Confident of his innocence in the matter, President Clinton overrode his attorney general and ordered her to name a Whitewater special counsel. Reno named former New York U.S. attorney Robert Fiske.
• On February 11, 1994, Paula Jones, one of the women mentioned in the Spectator’s “Troopergate” article, made her national debut at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, charging then-governor Bill Clinton with forcing sex on her during a “job interview” in his room at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock. Now represented by the Landmark Legal Foundation, another Scaife-funded conservative organization, she announced plans to file a lawsuit against the president of the United States.
• As if sealing his own fate, President Clinton made the mistake of signing legislation that returned the power to select an independent counsel to the Special Division of the Justice Department, a panel of three federal judges named by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, at this time William Rehnquist. On August 5, at the urging of Senate Republicans, the newly appointed panel voted to fire Robert Fiske and replace him with former solicitor general Kenneth W. Starr, who had earlier spoken out publicly in support of Paula Jones’s legal right to take the president to court.
• Ken Starr launched his investigation into alleged financial improprieties surrounding Bill and Hillary Clinton’s investment in Whitewater, but he soon expanded his probe by starting to interview Bill Clinton’s former state trooper bodyguards about their totally unrelated charges of his sexual misconduct. And that questioning, of course, led to Paula Jones, whose right to challenge the president was now before the Supreme Court.
• Criticized by the media for his “sexual prurience” and for exceeding the bounds of what he was supposed to be investigating, Starr suddenly resigned his post to accept a teaching position in Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. Two days later, he announced he’d changed his mind—apparently embarrassed by media reports that the single most generous donor to the Public Policy School was none other than lifetime Pepperdine regent Richard Mellon Scaife himself. Starr eventually went to Pepperdine, on Scaife’s ticket, after his investigation was complete.
• Back on the job, Starr joined forces with Paula Jones’s attorneys. While preparing to depose the president about his contacts with Jones, they were contacted by Linda Tripp, who said she had another story they might be interested in. As has been exhaustively reported, Starr’s lawyers then went after Monica Lewinsky, lured her into a meeting at the Pentagon City Ritz-Carlton, and threatened her with twenty-seven years in prison unless she’d consent to wear a body wire for recording her conversations with President Clinton. Showing good judgment (this time), Lewinsky insisted on calling her lawyer first.
• The very next day, in the downtown Washington law offices of Skadden, Arps, President Clinton spent six hours under deposition in the Paula Jones case. He denied the allegations made by Paula Jones. And then he denied ever having had sexual relations, as defined, with Monica Lewinsky. Only on the strictest reading of the judge’s definition—“contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person”—was he telling the truth. But nobody else bought it.
• Starr issued his final report, basically exonerating the Clintons of any fault in the Whitewater matter but accusing President Clinton of lying under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky. This, of course, led to House Judiciary Committee hearings, Clinton’s impeachment, and his acquittal by the Senate.
By now, Scaife thought he saw his investment coming to fruition. As a result of the millions he had personally and singularly donated to fuel the campaign against Clinton, Whitewater led to Troopergate, Troopergate led to Paula Jones, Paula Jones led to Monica Lewinsky, and Monica Lewinsky led to impeachment.
And yet, as the impeachment fiasco raged, President Bill Clinton only become more popular, enjoying some of the highest poll ratings of his presidency at the very moment Republicans were trying to destroy him. Americans knew a railroading when they saw one.
Still, for Richard Mellon Scaife, it was money well spent. He got a lot more for his investment than the du Ponts ever did in their war against FDR. And the Scaife machine provided the blueprint for a similar corporate-funded campaign of personal attacks against future Democratic candidates. The only difference is that future campaigns were even more vicious and much better funded. By all accounts, Charles and David Koch would make Scaife look like a cheapskate. And by the time a new political star was born in Barack Obama of Illinois, the right-wing attack machine was sleek, well oiled, and already grinding away.
Copyright © 2012 by Bill Press