Presidential campaigns since almost the beginning have been a source of wonder and of public entertainment. The first campaign that displayed the vitriol and half-truths that are the stuff of today's was that of 1800. John Adams (1797–1801) was battling for reelection against Thomas Jefferson. In the back-and-forth between their respective newspaper supporters (for only in print did the verbal fireworks take place) Adams was reviled as a fool and a tyrant, and once again as in 1796, as an "avowed friend of monarchy." Jefferson was denounced as an atheist, a Franco-maniac, and sometimes simply as Mad Tom. He was, it was said, an infidel whose passions posed untold, indeed unimaginable danger to the republic.
The Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans acted as if they were foreign adversaries, constantly at each other's throat in the public prints and using denunciatory language that even now is rarely used. No citizen of that day would have predicted that in their old age Adams and Jefferson would correspond with each other on the great questions of republican government in a body of letters that is today a national treasure. Despite the heat of the political struggles, voters have always seemed able to see beyond the rhetoric of the combatants and their followers. Notice, for example, that all incumbent presidents running for office during wartime have been reelected. Although James Madison was fiercely blamed for the War of 1812, which was denounced as "Mr. Madison's War," he was reelected in 1812. Lincoln won a second term in 1864, even though the outcome of the Union cause was still in doubt.
Personal assaults have never been absent from presidential canvasses. But they are usually ineffective. Despite a rumor of Jefferson's amorous connection with his slave Sally Hemings that was circulated in 1804, the issue evaporated quickly and did not defeat its target in the election. (The story never died, however, and in the late 1990s DNA testing has confirmed that the descendants of Sally Hemings had a Jefferson ancestor, possibly Thomas.) As for Andrew Jackson in 1828, he was stung by the scorpion charge which had long shadowed him that Rachel, his dear wife, had lived with him in adultery. She had mistakenly assumed she was divorced from her first husband at the time that she and the hero of the Battle of New Orleans (1815) were married. That she and Jackson were remarried when the facts were revealed mattered not at all to the supporters of John Quincy Adams. Rachel Jackson's death before her husband's inauguration left Jackson bereft, and he never ceased to put the blame for it on his opponents' scurrility. The story plainly did not weaken Jackson's candidacy.
Martin Van Buren (1837–1841), when he ran for president in 1836, was said to be an illegitimate son of Aaron Burr—thus, a bastard sired by a traitor who had killed Alexander Hamilton in 1804. Lincoln in the election of 1860 felt the pain of hearing that he was an illegitimate child, too. Such personal calumniation reached new heights during the election of 1884. The Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, was said to be the father of a child born out of wedlock, and his opponents made the most of the story. Cleveland had not been sure he was the father of the little boy—it might have been the responsibility of a friend of his—but being a bachelor he took on the obligation of supporting the child and his mother. In the end, his determination to tell the truth, as he also urged his supporters to do, carried the day and won him the election. Nevertheless, the impertinent jingle "Ma, Ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha" lingers in presidential history.
In the new century, possibly because Victorian moralism in America was at its zenith, coupled with big-power responsibilities and the sobering effect of World War I, Americans came to think of their presidents as high-minded, flawless men. For years salacious gossip ceased to be a part of presidential campaigns, although Wilson's possibly adulterous trysts and the infidelity of Warren G. Harding (1921–1923) were well-known to intimates and to many newspaper reporters. Franklin D. Roosevelt's longtime affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherford, which had commenced in 1917 when he was assistant secretary of the Navy, was not general knowledge until after his death in 1945. His relations with Margaret ("Daisy") Suckley, a distant cousin, came to light only in the 1990s. John F. Kennedy's promiscuous womanizing likewise played no part in his campaign of 1960.
The old restraint broke down during the 1980s, and today presidential privacy is no more. Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, an intern in the White House, opened the way to his impeachment in 1998. His earlier entanglement with an Arkansas nightclub singer, Gennifer Flowers, was a featured story during his first campaign in 1992. And the lawsuit that a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones, brought against Clinton in 1994 for sexual misconduct (which he eventually settled) contributed heavily to the tabloidization of newspapers and other media, as well as the denigration of the presidency. Without apparent embarrassment, he and Hillary Rodham Clinton, soon to be the First Lady, readily discussed their marriage on national television during the campaign of 1992. A candidate's life is now a more or less open book, with income tax returns and medical records and every kind of rumor and report quickly turned into a national—or even international—story.
The first presidents did not "campaign" in the way modern Americans think of a run for the White House. It was regarded as unseemly for a potential president to appear to be seeking the office. Indeed, the myth was general that the office seeks the man. Still, the ferocious jostling for political primacy is an essential ingredient of the office. Lincoln, for example, was pleased to be everybody's second choice at the Republican convention of 1860 in Chicago. He rightly expected that none of his opponents was strong enough to carry the day and that the party would come to him. His appetite for the office was hard to hide; he had said with barely feigned zest: "The taste is in my mouth a little." When Adlai Stevenson was approached for the Democratic nomination in 1952, his first response was, "Let this cup pass." He was not posing as a modest man but rather shrinking from a contest against General Eisenhower, a sure winner.
The eye of the television camera combined with modern investigative reporting has made it impossible any longer to hide or cover up a candidate's real or perceived shortcomings. Although Franklin Roosevelt suffered paralysis in his legs after contracting polio in 1921, and often had to be carried by Secret Service agents, the general public was unaware of his incapacity. Every effort was made to hide it from the public—in the belief, apparently, that FDR's ability to govern might be deemed impaired. Yet today the public seems to have given up such taboos as would once have militated against presidential candidates. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee, who ran against General Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, was the first candidate of a major party who was a divorced man, and Ronald Reagan was the first divorcé elected to the presidency. In neither case did the marital status of the man become an issue. But the fact that Democratic nominee Alfred E. Smith was a Roman Catholic had played a major part in his defeat in 1928. Only when John F. Kennedy, also a Roman Catholic, sought the office in 1960 did this so-called handicap no longer apply. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore chose Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, to be the nominee for vice president; Lieberman's religion did not seem to be a deciding factor in the outcome of the election.
As the public began more and more to participate in the hoopla of naming a president, the campaigns became dramatic and picturesque—full of parades, songs, banners, and slogans. Some of the slogans are indelible markers in the nation's history: "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too" (the Whigs in 1840 with William Henry Harrison for president); "We Polked 'em in '44, we'll Pierce them in '52" (the Democrats in 1852); "McKinley and the Full Dinner Pail" (the Republicans in 1900); "He kept us out or war" (the Democrats in 1916 with Woodrow Wilson for president); "Keep Cool with Coolidge" (the Republicans in 1924); "I Like Ike" (the Republicans in 1952 with Eisenhower for president); "Nixon's the One" (the Republicans in 1972).
Until the end of the nineteenth century the principals did not themselves take part in the noisy ballyhoo. Their surrogates and the party faithful did the dirty work. When there were issues at stake—as became commonplace after the Civil War—the candidates' positions on them would be made known by letters published in the newspaper, or by the candidate announcing his support of the party platform. Between 1865 and 1900 controversy revolved chiefly around the tariff (should it be high or low?) and about the currency (should it be backed by silver or by gold or by both?). These hotly disputed questions were really old ones much debated in antebellum days, but now they masked others that did not enter presidential campaign discourse. Deep-lying concerns, such as the conditions of those who toiled in the fields and the swelling industrial centers, the slums in which millions were forced to live, the lack of supervision of the food and drug supply, and, not least of all, the treatment of people of color, including not only the freedmen but also Native Americans and people of Asian descent—none of these found any echo in presidential campaigns.
In office, chief executives have sometimes uttered words of complaint about the burden they bear. Jefferson came to call the presidency "a splendid misery." "A bed of thorns," was how John Tyler put it. "Dignified slavery," was Andrew Johnson's phrase. Beset by office-seekers, James A. Garfield declared: "My God! What is this place that a man should ever want to get into it." Harry Truman labeled the executive mansion a "big white jail." Grover Cleveland was the most candid when he confessed that being president is "a self-inflicted penance," for nobody has yet been dragged kicking and screaming into the White House. Indeed, few presidents, excepting perhaps James Buchanan (1857–1861), in 1861 and Herbert Hoover (1929–1933), though fully aware that they occupy the White House only temporarily, can resist bemoaning their departure on moving day.