Incivility In American Political Speech

[NOTE: revised slightly, and with links, this was the presentation that I made last night at the panel  for Prof. Steven Candee's Political Science class at LCC, carried on Comcast Channel 23  in Eugene, Oregon. A necessarily abbreviated time-line essay, given a 15 minute time slot for the presentation. Other panel members were Jackman Wilson, The Register-Guard's editorial page director; Rick Dancer, former KEZI anchorman and 2008 GOP candidate for Oregon Sec'y of State, and Charles Dalton, Chair of the Democratic Party of Lane County. -- HW]

This is not the first time in American history that our language has become so toxic. There are two other times that this has happened.


The Actual Hamilton-Burr dueling pistols

The first time was when Americans ignored George Washington’s idealistic — as it turns out — plea that there be no political parties. Alexander Hamilton’s Whigs were in a death struggle with Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Republican party. Jefferson won — although his Vice President, Aaron Burr, realized that HE had as many electoral votes as Jefferson and tried to grab the presidency in Congress.

Alexander Hamilton’s friends and newspapers spread as much vitriol as possible about Jefferson — usually under an anonymous pseudonym, like, say, “dittohead76″ … oh, wait, that’s AOL. They liked classical names like “Publius” and “Demosthenes.”

Jefferson’s people did the same about Hamilton. You might recall the old political whisper that DNA testing finally proved true: Jefferson sleeps with his slaves.

Aaron Burr heard third-hand about something that Alexander Hamilton said about him at a dinner party, and demanded an apology or “satisfaction.”
Burr didn’t have a  lot to do, as a result of his little usurpation trick, which is why Vice Presidents haven’t had much to do ever since. So Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton refused to back down, and at the dueling spot, where Hamilton’s son had been killed in a duel exactly a year earlier, Burr shot Hamilton dead. Like son, like father.

burr hamilton duel

Darwin Award: Like son, like father

But things kind of ramped back after that. There’s something to be said for dueling as a means of cutting back on slander, but Zell Miller is completely wrong, nonetheless. When your party’s leader has been killed for his nasty tongue, you kind of pull back, rhetorically.

Hamilton eventually made it to the $10 bill, and Aaron Burr took it on the lam to Mexico, where he waited for Gore Vidal to rescue him from obscurity.


Hamilton’s bill


The second time that toxic political speech showed up  came back in the years immediately preceding the Civil War (and during it, of course). And brings me to my favorite local question. I am sometimes asked, “Why do they call it ‘College Hill’ when there’s no college, and the University of Oregon is a couple miles away?”

Well, it’s because “Columbia College” was founded at about 19th and Olive:

From the College Hill Cultural Resources Survey
Planning Department, City of Eugene and Land and Community Associates – March 1988

Written by Patricia Berl.

One of the most significant events in College Hill’s history was the establishment of Columbia College, for which College Hill was named. The college was located near Olive and 19th Avenue on 120 acres Charnel Mulligan had donated for the establishment of a college….

Columbia College’s Board of Directors was divided on the issue of slavery in Oregon. [The college president, Reverend] Henderson was known to be anti-slavery. The pro-slavery faction of the board made several attempts to gain control of the board and, therefore, the college. They finally succeeded in 1859 and forced Reverend Henderson to resign. The new principal, M.I. Ryan, was vehemently pro-slavery and wrote several articles expressing his position. A student at the college wrote several rebuttals to Ryan’s articles under a pseudonym….

Yes. That student was a fellow with the unlikely name of Harrison Rittenhouse Kincaid.

From the Centennial History of Oregon 1811 – 1911 by Joseph Gaston, 1912, Volume 2, p. 299

“In the meantime, [Judge Kincaid] had come into full recognition of the value of education and when he had saved a little money he decided to attend school, entering Columbia College as a member of a class which numbered many men who afterward became famous, including Joaquin Miller… It was about this time that Judge Kincaid entered upon his journalistic career. It was the year 1860. When most momentous questions were being everywhere discussed. The Herald, a Democratic paper, strongly supported the secession movement in articles written by President [M.I. ] Ryan, of Columbia College, under the pseudonym of Vindex. At length Judge Kincaid was induced to answer these through B. J. Pengra’s paper, called the People’s Press, writing under the name of Anti-Vindex. President Ryan ascribed the articles to Mr. Pengra and made an attempt to kill him, after which he escaped to Virginia and entered the Confederate army. The next summer found Judge Kincaid as a staff member of the People’s Press, the leading Republican paper of the state …  later he and Joseph Ware purchased the paper and changed its name to the Oregon State Journal … the last issue being dated May 29, 1909, owing to the fact that daily newspapers killed the demand for weekly publications.”

kincaid AKA Anti-Vindex

Screen name = “Anti-Vindex”

Columbia College was burnt to the ground twice. It was never rebuilt, from 1860 on. Which is why college hill is called “College Hill.”

Even though there hasn’t been a college there since 1860.

[Note that "President" Ryan actually shot the editor, Pengra, who recovered. Ryan fled all the way back East to join the Army of Northern Virginia. Pengra recovered and hired "Anti-Vindex."]

For a long time, there were TWO newspapers in most towns, just as there are now two blogospheres. There used to be two newspapers in Eugene, the Republican Register and the Democratic Guard. Wikipedia tells us:

In 1867, J. B. Alexander founded the Eugene Guard as a weekly Democratic newspaper. [...]

The paper was purchased in 1927 by publisher Alton F. Baker, Sr., “son of the general manager of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer*”. Three years later, Baker bought the [Eugene] Register and merged the two papers.
[* SEE]


There’s always been a nasty streak in American politics, but if we could name a date when the modern era of incivility began, it would be on November 7, 1962, when one Richard Milhous Nixon lost the California governor’s race to the incumbent governor, Jerry Brown’s father, Pat Brown, in a decisive defeat. Wikipedia notes:

… In a bitter and expensive campaign, Brown and Nixon campaigned with great zeal and effort. Nixon had a big lead in the polls early on, but Brown chipped away at his lead. Still, come election day, Nixon was favored to win a relatively close election. But Brown not only won, but by a surprising 5%. A stunned and frustrated Nixon announced he was retiring from politics…

Nixon famously said: “you won’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

nixon no kick

Everybody wrote Nixon off, but, in a sense it WAS Nixon’s last press conference. From that point on, Nixon was at war with the press.
We forget that Nixon came to prominence as a congressman in his “House Un-American Activities Committee” — or HUAC — hearings on Communist infiltration of the government.

Joe McCarthy was just coming into his own at the time. The Era of McCarthyism could have been called the Era of Nixonism, had Nixon not been picked as the VP candidate by Eisenhower as an olive branch to the McCarthy wing of the GOP. And we ought to recall that Nixon’s 1950 senate campaign against Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas is still called one of the dirtiest campaigns in American History.

But the modern era in incivility begins with Nixon’s “Last Press Conference” when he famously and petulantly said: “you won’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”*

[* NOTE: Because of time constraints, this is necessarily shorthand. In fact, it is the "smear" culture of Southern California Republican politics that produces the effect, with the same supporting cast of characters involved in the Reagan campaign(s) of 1976 and 1980, etc. Nixon's as good a figurehead as any.]


Back in ’68 as a product

Nixon returns in 1968 with a new approach to politics: the first campaign in American political history to use Madison Avenue advertising techniques.

(See The Selling of the President, 1968 by Joe McGinness.)

Hereinafter, we would sell presidents like we sell toothpaste, which has become the modern campaign style. But Nixon was still paranoid about the press, and determined to completely control coverage, if he could. At a campaign appearance on the old Mike Douglas Show (Douglas was an ex-big band singer with an afternoon syndicated talk show, like, say, Ellen DeGeneres is today), Nixon had a long talk with one of the producers, backstage, and literally talked Mike Douglas’ producer into leaving the talk show and coming on board with his campaign as media guru.

That fellow’s name was Roger Ailes. (Or, in this essay, our Judas Goat. Following his career is the easiest way to follow the “slime and smear” culture of modern, calculated incivility.)

roger ailes fox

Roger Ailes but the nation sickens

And, some of you might remember Nixon’s minions. Just last week, William Safire died, the speechwriter who coined the phrase “the nattering nabobs of negativity” for Agnew to attack the press with, along with other gems, such as Agnew’s “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

Safire might have written it, and Agnew might have delivered it, but the intent was sheer Nixon.

agnew warpath

The whole modern Republican message machine has its roots in the Nixon campaigns of 1968 and 1972. 1972’s, of course, is remembered as “Watergate.” [SEE]

But consider who the Republican National Chairman was at the time: George Herbert Walker Bush. And the Chair of the College Republicans? A fellow named “Karl Rove,” whom George H.W. Bush ruled in favor of when Rove’s election was accused of dirty tricks and ballot box stuffing.

Karl Rove came to Washington D.C. under Nixon, and was put under Donald Segretti in Watergate’s “dirty tricks” campaign — a campaign that led to little things like Edmund Muskie’s tearful denunciation of smears against his wife — tears which were then used to “prove” that Muskie wasn’t “manly” enough to stand up against the Soviet Socialist Communists, and Muskie withdrew.

And so on and so forth.


The Infamous ’88 “Willie Horton” smear ad

Roger Ailes would then go on to become Ronald Reagan’s media consultant during the 1980 and 1984 campaigns. Ailes then consults for the 1988 George HW Bush campaign, smearing poor Michael Dukakis into a political Siberia that he inhabits to this very day.

In 1988 Ailes was credited (along with Lee Atwater) with guiding George H. W. Bush to a come-from-behind victory over Michael Dukakis. Ailes and Lee Atwater scripted and produced the “Revolving Door” ad. He did not produce the Willie Horton ad, which was directed and produced by the National Security Political Action Committee (NSPAC), but Democrats later charged the Bush campaign with illegally coordinating the ads with the NSPAC. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) investigated the charge and deadlocked on a 3-3 vote, clearing Ailes and the campaign of legal problems. Ailes also came up with the “orchestra pit theory” regarding sensationalist political coverage in the news media, with the question:

If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?

Ailes significantly DID NOT act as a media consultant on the second Bush campaign, and, AMAZINGLY! Bush the Elder lost to Bill Clinton.
Ailes then attempts (in the early 90’s), to syndicate Rush Limbaugh as a television show. When that folds (and after a detour to CNBC), Rupert Murdoch asks Ailes to found Fox News for him. And so he does.

Here’s a fun quote about Ailes, from a Fairness and Accuracy in Media report on Fox News (which Ailes founded for Rupert Murdoch in 1996):

… Described by fellow Bush aide Lee Atwater as having “two speeds–attack and destroy,” Ailes once jocularly told a Time reporter (8/22/88): “The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.” Later, as a producer for Rush Limbaugh’s short-lived TV show, he was fond of calling Bill Clinton the “hippie president” and lashing out at “liberal bigots” (Washington Times, 5/11/93). It is these two sensibilities above all–right-wing talk radio and below-the-belt political campaigning–that Ailes brought with him to Fox, and his stamp is evident in all aspects of the network’s programming….

Now, I could go a lot further, and talk about Pat Buchanan (another Nixon speechwriter) or Dick Cheney, or Lee Atwater or Charles Colson, who went to prison for his role in Watergate, founded a prison ministry, and then, on JUSTICE SUNDAY II (remember Justice Sunday?) was back onstage as a featured POLITICAL speaker, having come full circle. Or G. Gordon Liddy, another convicted felon from Nixon’s ’72 campaign who is now a “talk show host.”

colson today

Ex-felon Charles “Holy” Colson today

But that’s straying from the point.

The modern incivility in political speech began as a studied technique, mud-slinging and media manipulation in a media-saturated age, and it has remained and thrived because it WORKS.

There isn’t room here for a long exegesis of WHY and HOW. Suffice it to say that the modern “smear” campaign has worked very well ever since Richard Nixon took on kindly Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas  1950, back in the McCarthy Era.


And it is unique in American politics because it has been intentionally set up to attack the “free” press, the more or less non-partisan press, and it has involved the creation of the modern institutions of partisan blogs (coordinated blog smears are a documented phenomenon), the vast majority of “talk radio” and the openly partisan “news” outlet, from Fox Nooz, to the Drudge Report, to “Newsbusters” (a doppelganger of Media Matters and FAIR, who try to be media watchdogs, where Newsbusters openly announces it is “exposing and combating liberal bias in the media.”)
All right. I want to make one more point, and this is the most toxic point of all:

I believe that the unintended, but worst consequence of this all has been in the inadvertent creation of a national diualogue in which father is pitted against son, mother against daughter, brother against sister, parent against child and family against family. Because sneering and denying the rights of other citizens to EXIST when those other citizens disagree with you has become our national culture.


Another “cute” hate pic from a Sodahead ‘discussion’

from the same page

from the same page

And I trace the TACTICS that created it back to Nixon’s “last press conference” on November 7, 1962.


But political campaigns are conducted by paid professional “campaign managers” these days, and because the modern smear campaign tactics have been successful, they continue to be used by paid campaign professionals on both sides of the aisle, and will continue, alas, until the tactic no longer works.

murdoch and ailes

Ailes and Murdoch

And please note what the story was at the precise moment of the LCC presentation.


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9 responses to “Incivility In American Political Speech

  1. Pingback: Posts about Rush Limbaugh as of October 7, 2009 » The Daily Parr

  2. Smear campaigns are successful. Truth is often irrelevant. and the media is on the side of those with the most money.
    Not a good thought, but sadly the state of American politics.

  3. majii

    I witnessed the Nixon, Agnew, Reagan, and GHW Bush presidency, and as you have stated presidential campaigns did begin to resemble ads we commonly see on TV. The manipulation of the media also came into fruition and has continued to this day. I can also recall when JFK campaigned for president that some of today’s vitriol didn’t exist. The Kennedy-Nixon Debate was the first televised presidential debate, and because people could see the candidates for the first time from their living rooms, it shaped Americans opinions of the two candidates. Some historians say that it was this debate that led to Kennedy winning the WH in 1960.
    Political discourse and reporting is a sad affair to behold today. I remember looking forward to Walter Cronkite’s nightly news broadcasts. He could be depended upon to deliver the facts. I noticed that when Mr. Cronkite passed, many on the right had their knives sharpened and ready to cut his reputation to pieces because of his reporting on the Vietnam War and on Watergate, and the internet was the main vehicle of choice to carry out this smear mission. You are also correct that many of the tactics used in political discourse began under Nixon. I was in undergraduate school when Watergate occurred, and I remember how the republicans tried to put a lid on Watergate, and the way Nixon claimed executive privilege in refusing to release the tapes to Congress. Rove used the same excuse recently, and used Fuchs Noose to lie and sway public opinion to avoid testifying before a congressional committee. Dick Cheney and his daughter did the same thing to try to convince the American people that tortured worked in preventing another terrorist attack on America knowing that evidence to the contrary exists.
    The republicans with the help of Rove, Ailes, Murdoch, Limbaugh, Beck, and others in the media, have done, and are still doing, a major dis-service when it comes to the dissemination of accurate and unbiased information on government policies and issues. It seems as if the need for honesty, responsibility, and a conscience are no longer essential ingredients in reporting. I read this week that the NY Times has decided to pander to the right-wing by increasing its coverage of issues of importance to them. There seems to be no regard for the accuracy of the rw information that the NY Times prints. I can only surmise that the NY Times wants to increase its readership and subscriptions at the risk of ruining its journalistic reputation. I’ve also read an article in which the WH has commented on the lack of factual news reporting in the media. IMO, we are most certainly living in an era where responsibility, journalistic integrity, and accuracy in reporting political issues are trumped by a race to report the most sensational and most outrageous events and soundbites.
    Thanks for the stroll down memory lane, Mr. Williams.

    • Thanks, Majii. Your points are well taken. Necessarily, my discussion of the line had to be cut to the bone for time reasons. What astonishes me is that the Righties have BLATANTLY BIASED media, but can bully MSM outlets LIKE the NYT into covering their bat-shit bug-fuck crazy “stories” so as to prove that they’re NOT biased.

      Odd. The very bullies they’re kow-towing to would NEVER give them a break no matter what they did. Like they did with Ted Kennedy, they make too much money “fighting” the NYT and the MSM to ever give them credit.

      Meantime, those of us who still hoped the media would do its job have watched the best papers in the USA turned into dogshit in succeeding years: The Washington Post, then the Los Angeles Times (which is, right now, little better than the apocryphal “fish wrapper” the righties call any paper that doesn’t worship their POV), and now the New York Times.

      And David Axelrod meets with Roger Ailes to try to broker a truce between Faux Nooz™ and the White House.

      We’ve GOT extraordinary rendition. Why the heck not USE it? (I’m talking about you, Ailes, and you TOO, Rupert.)

      Curiouser and curiouser.

  4. Nice overview. I also think of the Sumner caning by Preston Brooks, but thanks for passing on the College Hill story.

  5. Pingback: Nice to see a politician with a pair of balls… « Willpen’s World

  6. angelo ferrara

    hart, you do some really great writing. i also live in eugene on lower fox hollow road. hope you get out this way sometime.