Three weeks from today, Americans finally will have a chance to vote for president of the United States — hundreds of other offices on ballots across the country. As a presidential historian who has written histories of presidential campaigning, of various presidents, of First Ladies, including Hillary Clinton when she was in that symbolic role, and, most recently, of the Clintons and the 1990s in The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, every day until Election Day I will post an article putting this election in historical context, trying to explain this wild and wacky race using history as our guide. So here it goes, with hashtag #2016incontext
And the winner is… clearly not the American people. After three debates, Hillary Clinton appears to have survived, and Donald Trump may have self-destructed – we will see on November 8. Trump showed that he’s a monstrous bully, who perceives any adversity he faces into a conspiracy against him. Hillary Clinton was more disciplined, occasionally more appealing, but her campaign remained a bit of a doughnut to me – a bit too saccharine with all its careful appeals sprinkling sweets to this group and that special interest, while lacking a core message, a center. (Trump’s is a baloney sandwich which may have turned rancid)
Still, for all the charges and countercharges, here’s the historical good news. Despite the transcripts that would suggest they are competing in the “most corrupt candidate ever” sweepstakes, truth is, neither can compete with the corrupt candidates of yesteryear. Without excusing either candidate’s behavior, their sins do not compare to the blatant bribery and electoral manipulation that used to be the norm. Oddly, American politics has never been so clean, yet so many consider the political system, epitomized by these two nominees, exceptionally dirty.
In the 1800s, votes and politicians frequently were for sale. Bribing a member of Congress was legal until 1853, and many legislators received “consulting fees” thereafter. Mark Twain called Congress “the best government that money can buy.”
As billions of dollars rebuilt America after the Civil War, millions of dollars floated into politicians’ pockets. Boss William Marcy Tweed ran the tab for building the New York County Courthouse to $13 million dollars, paying one carpenter $360,751 one month alone.
Another Tammany Hall boss, George Washington Plunkitt, distinguished between “honest graft” — being “tipped off” to buy lands slated for public development, then flipping them for a profit — versus “dishonest graft” — lobbying for a project to be built on land you owned. The first was simply “lookin’ ahead.” Plunkitt admitted, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”
Seeing opportunities and taking ‘em occurred on the presidential level too. President Ulysses S. Grant hired 42 relatives and so many greedy friends that disgusted Republicans formed a rival Liberal Republican Party in 1872. Four years later, the Democratic nominee Samuel Tilden didn’t just keep his income tax forms secret, he was accused of actually evading income taxes during the Civil War. By 1880, one cartoonist imagined “The Two Rival Political Huckster Shops,” with Republicans and Democrats each advertising “Nominations for Sale.” Surveying this debacle, the “Spirit of Washington” lamented to the “Spirit of Jefferson”: “Behold the result of our sacrifices and labors.”
Perhaps most outrageous, the Republican nominee in 1884, former Speaker of the House and Secretary of State James G. Blaine, had become a millionaire on government salaries rarely exceeding five thousand dollars a year. As some “Mugwumps” abandoned the party again, the New York Sun attacked “Blaine, the beggar at the feet of the railroad jobbers, the prostitute in the Speaker’s chair, the lawmaking broker in land grabs, the representative and agent of the corruptionists, monopolists and enemies of the Republic.” Blaine was soon caught having ghostwritten a letter exonerating himself, then having sent instructions for the ruse ending with the directive: “Burn this letter.” This phrase became a Democratic battle cry.
With each party distributing its own ballots to voters, ballot stuffing risked becoming the national pastime. “Colonizers” swarmed particular precincts. “Floaters” auctioned off their loyalties. “Repeaters” voted early and often. When Benjamin Harrison ran for president in 1888, the Republican National Committee’s treasurer, W.W., Dudley, circulated a note on party stationary instructing Indiana activists: “Divide the floaters into blocks of five, and put a trusted man with necessary funds in charge.” After the letter leaked, Democrats teased, demanding: “Blocks of Five, Dudley.” After winning, Harrison innocently exclaimed: “Providence has given us the victory.” Pennsylvania’s tough boss Matt Quay, aware of “how close a number of men were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary” to win, snapped: “Providence hadn’t a damned thing to do with it.”
The backlash furthered the move toward secret ballots. Still, as recently as 1960, a surge of corpses magically voting in Illinois and Texas helped John Kennedy earn the Electoral Votes he needed. Richard Nixon would justify his Watergate shenanigans in the 1970s by remembering the “substantial voter fraud” that defeated him in 1960. He reported that in “one county in Texas … where only 4,895 voters were registered, 6,138 votes were counted. In Chicago, a voting machine recorded 121 votes after only 43 people had voted.”
Today, money and votes are more easily tracked, while manipulations are more aggressively prosecuted. Since Watergate, American politics has become cleaner. Yet as with street crime, the media and prosecutorial crusades against corruption publicized the problem while controlling it, fueling fears of a dwindling phenomenon. In 2014, with 22 million government employees including more than 511,000 officeholders working in more than 87,000 local and state governments, the Justice Departmentcharged only 916 officials with corruption.
Hillary Clinton’s conduct around the emails was reprehensible, but it’s the sloppiness of the self-righteous reformer who always think she’s right, not the grand felonies of yesteryear. And Donald Trump’s behavior is piggish, but it’s the monstrousness of the celebrity billionaire who surrounds himself with fawning fans and assumes everything – and everyone is his for the taking, not the master manipulations of the scheming pols.
Worried about sliding into decadence as Rome did, Americans have long yearned for virtuous presidents while fearing their fall. During the 1787 constitutional convention, James Madison scribbled the word “corruption” fifty-four times in his notebook. In 1828, Andrew Jackson won the first popular presidential campaign railing against the “corrupt bargain,” of 1824, claiming that Henry Clay, the “Judas of the West,” had robbed him of the presidency.
Since the 1960s, intensifying media scrutiny and cynicism have updated these traditional fears. The credibility gap of Vietnam days has become a trust abyss. Now, online, accusations become exaggerated, Tweeted and forwarded into increasingly partisan and negative vortexes sensationalizing politics.
These harsher impressions poison a culture with a diminished capacity for adversity. The emergence of the first mass middle-class civilization after World War II, fostered a bratty perfectionism that emerged most clearly in the booming 1990s. Things being so good diminished our tolerance for anything bad. In America the functional we assume all will go smoothly – and quickly object or even go legal if anything misfires.
So, no, today’s candidates are not the most corrupt ever, nor is our system crashing. While too much money still shapes our politics, campaign contributions are a form of honest graft – without outright bribery or voter fraud.
Both candidate’s angry rhetoric feeds the generalized cynicism, making it harder for either to establish trust. Constantly claiming the country is corrupted locks-in perceptions of both as corrupting. Trump treats “the Obama-Clinton administration” as weak and venal, making his candidacy “about restoring honesty and accountability to government service.” In deeming these corrupt elites too weak to control the “criminal illegal immigrants” who have swarmed into “this country,” Trump further unnerves Americans. And, in a line that confirms those who mistrust his ethics, Trump growls conspiratorially, “nobody knows the system better than I do.”
Hillary Clinton defends the incumbent while promising some change. Still, when she says “My mission in the White House will be to make our economy work for everyone, not just those at the top,” when she vows to make the economy “fairer,” her rhetoric helps explain why Americans who once overwhelmingly trusted their government now mostly distrust it.
In every presidential campaign, each candidate juggles bashing and dreaming, stirring Americans’ hopes and exploiting their fears. Yelling “Throw the rascals out” is the easiest way to self-promote. It’s more difficult to acknowledge America the functional, vowing to mix continuity and change. Voters want to believe in something.
Today’s constant bashing reinforces the anomalies we already live in our media-besotted world: believing our leaders are more dishonest than they are and that our situation is worse than it is. The negativity is contagious, tarring both candidates, along with the country one of them will need to lead constructively come January 20.