10 BEST Dirty Tricks
Andrew Breitbart, 1969-2012
Last week, we said goodbye to Andrew Breitbart, the conservative media activist who died suddenly at the age of 43. Breitbart brought political dirty tricks into the age of the internet and stunned his opponents by his sheer audacity and prolificacy.
Some at least had the veneer of legitimacy, such as a video showing ACORN workers appearing to advise a couple on how to set up a prostitution operation and exposing US Rep. Anthony Weiner as someone who liked to expose his, well, namesake to young women who were not his wife. Others, such as heavily editing a video of USDA official Shirley Sherrod to make it appear that she was espousing discrimination against white people while in fact sharing a redemptive story of racial reconciliation, were vile and shameful.
In honor of Breitbart, we offer a compilation of political dirty tricks dating back to the republic’s first century. As found in Sean Wilentz’s excellent volume, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, the Whigs launched the candidacy of Gen. William Henry Harrison, affectionately known as “Tippecanoe,” against incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren in 1840.
White House mound
The Democratic president demonstrated his bona fides to the laboring classes by establishing a 10-hour workday for laborers who toiled on public works projects. But Whig propagandists successfully portrayed Van Buren as a distant and depraved aristocrat, with congressman Charles Ogle charging that the president employed a French chef and instructed the White House gardeners to build “a large mound in the shape of a female breast, topped by a carefully landscaped nipple.”
Also courtesy of Wilentz, Democratic Party officials gathered in New York City in October 1834 to approve a prearranged slate of conservative candidates for state office by popular vote. The only hitch was that the labor Democrats had packed the hall. One of the establishment Democrats slipped out and cut off the gaslights, plunging the meeting into darkness. But the laborites, who would become known as “loco focus,” had come prepared with candles and proceeded to nominate their own slate.
The most notorious dirty trickster may be Donald Segretti, who coined the term “ratf**king.” An operative of President Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign, Segretti admitted to stealing letterhead from the campaign of Democratic candidate Edmund Muskie and mailing out a letter accusing Sen. Henry Jackson of fathering a child with a 17-year old girl and having gotten arrested in the 1950s for homosexuality.
James Callender, dubbed by Time magazine as “America’s original trickster,” published information in a 1797 pamphlet about Alexander Hamilton’s affair with a married woman named Maria Reynolds, dashing the federalist leader’s hopes to one day win the presidency.
South Carolina 2000
Famously, Sen. John McCain lost the 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina to George W. Bush after a whisper campaign that variously suggested his wife was a drug addict, his adopted daughter was the product of infidelity and the candidate himself was mentally unstable. It’s unclear who, if anyone, orchestrated the campaign, but Bush strategist Karl Rove has always been considered the prime suspect.
Serial affair lies
They play rough in South Carolina. In 2010, gubernatorial candidate Nikky Haley was blindsided by rumors during the Republican primary that she had been involved in affairs with, first conservative blogger Will Folks and then political consultant Larry Marchant, who happened to work for her opponent, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer. Voters did not appear to believe or care about the allegations, and Haley prevailed over the haters.
Manipulating the purple
In our own backyard, campaign signs apparently designed to draw off supporters of Yvonne Johnson from mayoral candidate Robbie Perkins cropped up in front of Greensboro polling places on Election Day. Johnson had formerly served as mayor before her defeat by Bill Knight. Last year, she ran at large as part of a slate in support of mayoral challenger Robbie Perkins. The signs, which borrowed Johnson’s customary font and purple color, read, “Not happy with your choices for mayor or city council? Write in your choice.”