[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.
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.
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:
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.
“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.”
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.
[* http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=3277 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.”
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
Ailes and Murdoch
And please note what the story was at the precise moment of the LCC presentation.