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
Shocked by how all these “recent inventions and business methods” have “invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life,” appalled that with “the press … overstepping in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and of decency” gossip “has become a trade,” two legal crusaders warned that “what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.” Although the two law partners, Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren, were writing in 1890, they anticipated our brutal, bizarre 2016 Peeping Tom – and Tammy — campaign. This presidential election may be determined by two dramatic invasions of privacy – our mass eavesdropping on Donald Trump’s crass conversation with Billy Bush in 2005 and our collective snooping into the leaked emails of Hillary Clinton, Debra Wasserman Schultz, John Podesta, and others.
The fact that revelations of private exchanges threaten to be more influential this election cycle than public pronouncements about policy or ideology, suggests how debased our public discourse has become. We have plummeted a long way from an election like 1896 that pivoted around William Jennings Bryan’s eloquent rejection of a gold standard by saying: “you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” “Make America Great Again” and “Strong Together” are far cries from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 Acceptance address concluding: “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”
But even more disturbing is the way we all collude in repeated invasions of privacy, trampling on what Warren and Brandeis celebrated as the precious “right to be left alone.” In their now-classic Harvard Law Reviewarticle, the two traced the law’s development. Originally, legal protections punished “physical interference.” With growing “recognition” of our “spiritual nature,” our “feelings” and “intellect,” “the scope of these legal rights broadened.” Now, the term “property” has grown to comprise every form of possession — intangible, as well as tangible.”
In his famous Olmstead dissent in 1928, Louis Brandeis, now a Supreme Court Justice, considered “the right to privacy” essential “to the pursuit of happiness.” At the time, Brandeis worried about government intrusions on these rights. Our world teaches us that media – and mass – intrusions are no better.
We need to treat illegal hacks as piracy — meaning the theft of intellectual property – and the information garnered from “Wikileaks” and other such pirates as stolen property. In that vein, anyone who passes on illegally obtained information is no better than the spouse of a jewel thief who knowingly wears a stolen diamond necklace.
This campaign is not the first contest to peep behind a politician’s public veneer and expose the hypocrisy that is as natural to politics as bats are to baseball. The Framers of the Constitution began with a reversed equation. They assumed that when people like George Washington paraded around as paragons of virtue in public, it reflected their private virtue. More broadly, Americans in the early nation linked individual and communal virtue. A president’s example gives “a tone to [the] moral pulse of the nation,” the Albany Argus explained in 1844.
But by mid-century, one’s public role was no longer the crucial determinant of one’s “character.” Educators like Horace Mann and Ralph Waldo Emersonpreached that individual moral behavior bettered one’s “self” and improved society. “Character” now implied ethical conduct. A man “pure and upright in his private character,” the Argus continued, “is the only safe depository of public trust. . . . The vices and immoralities of private life will be carried into the public administration.” Just as a merchant would not select a clerk whose habits were immoral, or parents hire a teacher prone to vice, so should Americans protect themselves from the libertine and gambler, Henry Clay, the Democratic newspaper concluded.
Inevitably, then, there has always been a “Gotcha” element to American campaigning, seeking to unmask the true stinker behind all the perfumed peacocking. The 1884 campaign probably had the most influential leak in nineteenth-century American history, when on September 15 that year – not quite an October surprise theBoston Journal published Republican nominee James G. Blaine’s 1876 correspondence with a businessman, Warren Fisher, Jr., supplied by James Mulligan, once Fisher’s clerk. Fisher had helped Blaine sell some near-worthless railroad bonds in a series of questionable but profitable transactions. In one of these “Mulligan Letters,” Blaine ghostwrote a letter for Fisher exonerating himself. In the accompanying cover letter, Blaine explained the ruse and instructed: “Burn this letter.” Instead, “Burn this letter” became the cry of Democrats all over the country, as they denounced, “James, James, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the State of Maine.”
Of course, Americans have long loved gossiping about their political leaders, wondering about their private lives. Ironically, despite all the sanctimony coming from the Clinton camp these days about Donald Trump’s boorish behavior, Bill and Hillary Clinton spent much of the 1990s arguing for what Hillary Clinton back then called a “zone of privacy” and against what Bill Clinton condemned as “the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives” at the cost of our “national life.”
But our age of electronic voyeurism, where everyone is an aspiring Bob Woodwardor Matt Drudge has created a nation of Peeping Toms and Tammys. As a result, in 2008, Barack Obama was embarrassed when a sympathetic Huffington Post blogger who was following him around recorded his obnoxious riff at a San Francisco fundraiser that many of the people in small town America “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Four years later, Mother Jones publicized a surreptitiously recorded video of what it called Mitt Romney “raw and unplugged” dismissing the “47 percent who are with” Barack Obama “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” Romney was outed by the bartender who worked the event, Scott Prouty.
This year, amid the leaked emails and eleven-year-old Trump tape, Hillary Clinton was also caught lumping half of Trump’s supporters in “the basket of deplorables” as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.”
We have long known that a political gaffe is a politician caught in the act of being frank – or honest. And not every act of revelation is similar. Still, citizens should want politicians to have candid exchanges with their advisers on email, without fearing exposure of every half-baked idea, stupid qucip, and annoying correspondent. And those Democrats who were able to forgive Bill Clinton’s sins as “private,” irrelevant to his job, should be equally forgiving of Donald Trump, just as those Republicans who refused to forgive Bill Clinton should be equally condemning of Donald Trump.
Moreover, we need a fuller policy debate between our two leading nominees that goes beyond bluster and character assassination. This election, like many, ultimately triggers two central worries that haunted the Framers of the Constitution. Our country’s founders feared the kind of demagoguery Donald Trump exhibits as well as the reliance on government that has been the hallmark of Hillary Clinton’s career. This election is a lost opportunity to have the kind of bracing debate that help democracies mature.
Ultimately, however, this election reflects the loss of privacy we all experience by living on Facebook and Instagram, by being photographed and recorded practically wherever we are, by friends and foes alike. This most cherished right of privacy that Brandeis saw as so central to a happy and healthy life not just a functional democracy is missing, not just in this campaign, but in our lives.