Voters Will Decide If Political Attacks Are Too Rough

Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center

A political “smack-down” was how one cable network talk show described the most recent Democratic candidates’ televised debate — more the parlance of pro wrestling than national politics.

In a spirited exchange, Sen. Barack Obama slammed Sen. Hillary Clinton’s work as a lawyer for Wal-Mart, and Clinton delivered a barb about Obama’s legal work on behalf of a man she termed a “slumlord.” Sen. John Edwards then elbowed his way into airtime by criticizing both of his opponents.

Then there is former President Bill Clinton attacking critics of Sen. Clinton. And it’s not just the Democrats who have had testy exchanges. In November, after a harsh exchange on immigration policy, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney that he had a “holier than thou” attitude — bringing boos from the audience.

Some critics are now saying that such blunt exchanges and remarks are not only poor campaign tactics but unseemly for those claiming presidential timbre. But for those uncomfortable with such verbal blows, just consider the nation’s political past — when a “sound bite” was more “molar” than mush.

From the earliest days of the Republic, political opponents, publishers and pundits have delivered pithy observations along with withering personal attacks. Even now-revered presidents and founders were not spared.

John Adams once remarked publicly, “That [George Washington] was not a scholar is certain. That he is too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station is equally beyond dispute.” A newspaper editor defending Washington then described the future president as “blind, bald, crippled toothless Adams.”

About 50 years later, Gen. George McClellan was equally blunt in speaking of political and policy rival Abraham Lincoln: “He’s nothing more than a well meaning baboon.” Harper’s Magazine is reported to have referred to Lincoln as a “filthy story teller, despot, liar, thief, braggart, buffoon, monster, ignoramus … scoundrel, perjurer, swindler, tyrant” etc.

Twentieth-century exchanges could be just as pointed, if a tad more tame: Lyndon Johnson said one-time Green Bay Packers prospect Gerald Ford was “a nice guy but he played too much football with his helmet off.” Ford could give as well as he got:  Of his primary opponent Ronald Reagan, Ford once observed that he “doesn’t dye his hair. He’s just prematurely orange.”

In a 1984 debate with veteran officeholder Walter Mondale, Reagan, then 73, was asked if he was too old to stand for reelection. "Not at all," Reagan said – adding, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience."

Four years later, in a debate between vice-presidential candidates, GOP nominee Sen. Dan Quayle compared his U.S. Senate service with that of former president John F. Kennedy. Democratic nominee Sen. Lloyd Bentsen wounded Quayle’s candidacy with the quick retort: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy."

Political speech, for good reason, generally is considered the most-protected form of free speech under the First Amendment. A vital democracy requires a robust give-and-take on public issues, before and after elections. But while candidates are free to say what they will, today’s society likely would not accept the kind of verbal slam once directed at Benjamin Franklin by an editor of his day: “whoremaster infidel.”

Call it “political correctness” or just correct politics. The First Amendment protects our right to speak, but we face the results of our speech. Voters, not judges, election officials or editorial writers, will decide whether or not this year’s quips — and candidates — are too querulous, the barbs too pointed or the sharp points too personal.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].