“Gerry Ford is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.”—President Lyndon Johnson on House Minority Leader Gerald Ford.
As our election gets underway, we can expect that one party will accuse President Obama of being the Socialist Satan, while the other party will accuse Mitt Romney of being Jeff Skilling with good hair and Paul Ryan of scheming to wheel ninety year olds off of cliffs. We can also expect that some people will express a wish to return to the days when, supposedly, politicians were more civil. Yet whatever one thinks of heated rhetoric, the evidence suggests that the idea of politicians in previous eras being more civil is a myth. If we go all the way back to 1804, we can look at the conflict between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Two men with very different visions for America, Burr and Hamilton clashed both politically and personally. By 1804, Aaron Burr was Vice President of the United States, and their enmity showed no signs of subsiding. They decided to settle things by dueling with pistols. The end result was that Vice President Burr killed former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Amazingly, while he fled after killing Hamilton, Burr was eventually able to finish his term as vice president. Remember how much negative attention Dick Cheney got for shooting someone accidentally and non-fatally? Imagine what would have happened in the 21st century if Cheney had deliberately killed someone with a gun. Burr’s case is not an isolated one. By the 1850s, tensions over slavery had essentially reached the breaking point. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA), one of the few abolitionists in Congress, delivered a fiery antislavery speech. The two main politicians targeted in the speech were proslavery Democratic Senators Andrew Butler of South Carolina and Stephen Douglas of Illinois. The crimes against humanity by Butler and Douglas had certainly made them deserving of personal attack, but Sumner went too far by mocking Butler’s speech impediment and Douglas’ short, plump frame. Sumner also made statements that were justified but created great controversy. He said of Butler, “The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and 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. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator.” Butler’s nephew, Representative Preston Brooks (D-SC), was incensed. The South Carolina Congressman avoided challenging Sumner to a duel or, say, approaching him in the hallway and having a knockdown, drag out fight. Instead, Brooks approached Sumner while the Massachusetts Senator was at his desk and began hitting him in the head with a gold-headed cane. Meanwhile Brooks’ fellow South Carolina Congressman, Laurence Keitt, brandished a gun in an attempt to prevent anyone from intervening. Brooks was not removed from Congress for his actions. Keitt did lose his seat but was elected back. Approximately twenty months after serving as Brooks’ enforcer, Keitt was involved in another altercation. In a late-night session of the House of Represenatives, Congressman Galusha Grow (R-PA) went to the Democratic side of the aisle to talk with some Northern Democrats. Keitt was so enraged that he called Grow “a Black Republican puppy” and demanded that the Pennsylvania Congressman go back to the Republican side of the aisle. Grow effectively called Keitt a slave driver and said that the South Carolina Congressman could not tell him what to do. From there, the House descended into chaos. At least fifty Representatives began taking part a brawl. The fighting ended when John F. Potter (R-WI) tried to pull the hair of William Barksdale (D-MS) and inadvertently pulled off Barksdale’s wig. The other members of Congress were reduced to laughter. After the Civil War, aggression in politics continued. In the 1880s, New York state legislator “Big John” MacManus expressed the very odd desire to toss a fellow legislator in a blanket. The fellow legislator, who happened to be Theodore Roosevelt, approached MacManus and proclaimed, “By God! I hear you are going to toss me in a blanket. By God! If you try anything like that, I’ll kick you, I’ll bite you, I’ll kick you in the balls. I’ll do anything to you — you’d better leave me alone.” In 1949, Congressman John Rankin (D-MS) used the n word multiple times in a debate with liberal, pro civil rights Senator Jacob Javits (R-NY). Congressman Vito Marcantonio of New York, the only member of the American Labor Party in Congress at the time, was furious at Rankin’s use of a racial slur and requested to Speaker John Rayburn (D-TX) that the slur be removed from the record. Apparently trying to bail Rankin out of trouble, Rayburn claimed that the Mississippi Democrat had said “Negro.” Rankin protested that he had indeed used the n word and boasted that he had always used it and would continue to do so. These stories, along with the LBJ quote at the top must make it apparent that aggression and incivility have been part of politics for as long as politics have existed.