The Crestone Eagle • November, 2020

Historical elections (it’s been crazy before)

by Mary Lowers

As the election of 2020 looms large in our lives, I thought it might be comforting to look at US elections and presidents over time. The presidency has been an office that has seen its share of scandal, discord and nefarious schemes.

Robert McNamara, in his article “Presidential Elections of the 19th Century,” maintains the contest of 1828 which put incumbent John Quincey Adams (Pres. 1825-1829) up against the nefarious Andrew Jackson (Pres. 1829-1837) was the dirtiest election ever. McNamara says “Before it was over, the frontiersman (Jackson) was accused of adultery and murder and the upright New Englander (Adams) was literally called a pimp.”

Broadside, campaign advertisement featuring James M. Cox in The Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1920.

In 1876 after the corruption of Post Civil War reconstruction and U.S. Grant’s presidency (1869-1877) Americans were hoping for an ethical change for the better in Washington, D.C. for the U.S Centennial celebrations (1876-1877). McNamara says, “voters got a vicious campaign and a disputed election. Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but could not get an electoral majority. Breaking the deadlock the U.S. Congress made deals behind the scenes that brought Rutherford B. Hayes (Pres. 1877-1881) to office.” The 1876 election was widely considered to be stolen and President Hayes was mocked as His Fraudulency.

Martin Van Buren (Pres. 1837-1841) had a presidency full of challenges of a financial, political, and ideological nature. He lost his bid for a second term in office to Willam Henry Harrison (Pres. 1841) who was succeeded after he died in office by his Vice President, John Tyler (Pres. 1841-1845). When asked about being President, Van Buren said, “The two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”

The fourteenth president was Franklin Pierce (Pres. 1853-1857), not well known nationally. He was hoping to get elected through the slogan: “We Polked you in ‘44. We shall Pierce you in ‘52.” This slogan referred to the election of James K. Polk (Pres. 1845-1849), a fellow Democrat. The Democratic Party is often said to have the most winning campaign slogans.

Abraham Lincoln famously said “what kills the skunk is the publicity it gives itself.”

Although the Civil War was no laughing matter, President Abraham Lincoln (Pres. 1861-1965) was famous for his wit. One famous quip of his quoted by Senator Bob Dole in the 1970s is “what kills the skunk is the publicity it gives itself.” Lincoln often used frontier images such as the skunk to illustrate points which many Americans at the time related to well.

Chester A. Arthur (Pres. 1881-1885), while telling tales of how he’d won the vote in Indiana, at a Republican banquet said, “If it were not for the reporters, I would tell you the truth.” This indicates illegal shenanigans were a tradition in American politics. As the Presidency moved into the twentieth century, William Howard Taft  (Pres. 1909-1913) was a favorite in the political scene. He had been a political appointee of President McKinley (Pres. 1897-1901) and President Theodore Roosevelt (Pres. 1901-1909). Despite his stellar political career, McKinley held politics in disdain. He said, “Politics, when I am at it makes me sick!”

Woodrow Wilson (Pres. 1913-1921), who led our country out of isolationism into WWI, was a college professor and a Democrat. He said of partisan politics, “I have long enjoyed the friendship and companionship of Republicans because I am by instinct a teacher and would like to teach them something.” Wilson was quite a character; he cut costs at the White House by bringing in a flock of sheep to mow the lawn like Peggy Godfrey used to do in Moffat with her Ewe Mow It service a number of years ago.

Calvin Coolidge (Pres. 1923-1929) piloted the ship of state though the roaring twenties and was known to be a man of few words. He was seated next to a beauty contest winner at a banquet. Trying to loosen the president’s tongue, she confided in him, “I have a bet that I could get at least three words of conversation out of you.” President Coolidge looked at her and quietly said, “You lose!”

Another wartime leader, Franklin D. Roosevelt (Pres. 1933-1945), when informed his social activist wife Eleanor Roosevelt was in prison and asked if he was surprised, replied, “I am not surprised but what for?” The First Lady had actually been paying an official visit to the prison to tour the facility. Turns out FDR, as the president was known, added the word “iffy” to our lexicon. He invented it in the 1930s to dismiss questions at various press conferences.

President John Kennedy (Pres. 1961-1963) was a naval war hero during WWII. His valor was recognised by Navy and Marine Medals of Honor and the Purple Heart medal for bravery. Kennedy was modest about his accomplishments. When a young boy asked him how he became a war hero, he responded, “It was absolutely involuntary. They sunk my boat.”

President Jimmy Carter (Pres. 1977-1981) was vilified by many due to the Iran Hostage Crisis which occurred during his term in office. He said, “My esteem in this country has gone up substantially. It is very nice now, when people wave at me they use all their fingers.”

President Ronald Reagan (Pres. 1981-1989) was delivering a radio address on August 11, 1984. While conducting a sound check for a radio show he spoke into the mic saying, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that we have legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes!” Problem was the president had no idea he was on the air. The entire world heard his words. This is why August 11 became National Presidential Joke Day.

President Obama (Pres. 2009-2017) gave us the word snowmageddon which he used to describe a blizzard in 2010 that shut down Washington, DC. The term squatter, it turns out, was coined by President James Madison (Pres. 1809-1817) in a 1788 letter to George Washington. He used it to describe homeless Maine residents who lived on other people’s property often with no permission. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (Pres. 1901-1909) gave us the term muckraker. He first used the word in a speech to disparage unscrupulous journalists, who he claimed dig in the muck for juicy gossip. Whistleblowers who call out the politicians for illegal, unethical and dishonest actions are often called muckrakers.

Whether popular or unpopular, the federal executive is busy with weighty matters that quietly age presidents. Barak Obama commented to a reporter toward the end of his second term as president, “These days, I look into the mirror and I have to admit, I’m not the strapping Muslim Socialist that I used to be.” Elected office takes it out of you. Seems as though a sense of humor makes it tolerable.