(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Lots of people are understandably outraged about President Donald Trump’s risible comment that he would be willing to receive dirt on his political opponents from foreign sources. I’m indignant too.
The great risk presented by overseas aid to a domestic political campaign is always the implicit quid pro quo, the risk that the candidate might be beholden to foreign interests. That worry alone should place the president’s comments out of bounds. Still, I wonder whether this might not be a good moment to move from familiar and comfortable Trump-bashing to ask a larger question: Might it not be time we demanded that our political candidates and their supporters refuse dirt from any source, foreign or domestic? Might we not consider the possibility that campaigns should henceforth stick to the issues?
True, election-time dirt-digging has long been a staple of America’s dismal political history. Consider the scurrilous pamphleteer James Callender, best known for (accurately) exposing Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with a slave called “Sally.” During the election of 1800, Callender was jailed for publishing a blistering attack, unsupported by evidence, on supposed corruption in the administration of President John Adams. (Today one supposes he would be kicked off Twitter and Facebook for peddling false news, and perhaps find himself disinvited from a campus or two.)
But Callender was just doing what supporters of one candidate or another have always done.
We can poke our collective noses into any presidential election we choose, and we’ll almost always find both sides dishing dirt. Senator Stephen Douglas was dogged throughout his 1860 presidential campaign by rumors that he was a drunkard and that he had been secretly honored by the pope. In 1824, Andrew Jackson’s opponents whispered that his mother had been a prostitute. Jackson was also accused of hiding the fact that he had black blood, again through his mother, who was said to be a mulatto.
During the 1920 election, Warren Harding’s opponents would also whisper that he was secretly black — whispers that continued long after his death. Harding was further accused, was Grover Cleveland had been during the 1880s, of fathering a child out of wedlock. (DNA tests decades later disproved the rumors about Harding’s ancestry, but they proved the rumors about the child.)
In 1952, Adlai Stevenson was chased by rumors that he was gay — rumors largely propagated at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover. During the 1972 presidential campaign, the gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson wrote that Democrat Edmund Muskie was using “massive doses of Ibogaine,” a hallucinogen from West Africa.(1) Thompson meant the piece as satire, but many readers believed the claim, and (according to Thompson) some reporters accepted it as a rather juicy fact.(2)
Anyway, you get the idea.
OK, maybe there’s a sense in which it’s all in fun. Other nations have soccer; America has electoral dirt.
But here’s the weird part: Decades after the election, it’s largely the dirt that we remember. Who can call to mind what great issues were at stake in the titanic presidential battles of 1824 or 1920 or 1952, never mind where the candidates stood?(3)
The dirt, by contrast, has staying power. It crowds out the issues in our memories of history. It crowds out the issues today.(4)
So maybe we can dispense with it.
I’ve argued for years that voters should refuse to support candidates who run negative advertisements. Perhaps the point can be turned around: Maybe we could reward candidates who stick to the issues. In moments of wild fantasy, I imagine a presidential campaign in which we actually debate policy; in which we argue, respectfully and in detail, the relative merits of each party’s approach to health care or immigration, to national security or education, to whatever you like; a campaign where we don’t constantly interrupt our brief attention to policy with sustained, angry contention over which side’s skeleton-filled closets rattle loudest.
OK, that’s not going to happen. Our taste for dirt is too deeply ingrained. I don’t know where it comes from. I’ve heard this taste attributed to a sort of intellectual laziness, as if it’s easier to get our heads around rumor than the often complex issues that divide us; or to a certain smug puritanism, as common nowadays on the left as on the right, albeit across a different set of virtues that must be perfectly expressed; or even to social media, although our preference for dirt over policy long predates digital technology.
Whatever the source of our preference for mud-slinging, the Trump presidency seems to have heightened it. Goodness knows, his own constant dabbling in the filth might have pushed us the other way, toward a national conviction that we’re better than this. But no. We want our dirt.
So I’m back where I started. I’m both saddened and angered that the president of the United States would suggest even in passing that he’d accept dirt on his opponents from foreign sources. I only wish we could reach a point in our electoral politics where we’d refuse to tolerate dirt of any kind, no matter the source.
(1) The article is reprinted at page 151 of this book.
(2) “People really believed that Muskie was eating Ibogaine,” Thompson later explained. “I never said he was. I ... said there was a rumor in Milwaukee that he was. Which was true, and I started the rumor in Milwaukee.”
(3) OK, most people do sort of remember what was at stake in 1860, except when they get riled up and start shouting that each presidential contest is the most important in U.S. history.
(4) And no, it’s not just dirt on politicians that crowds out other issues. I have at least twice had the unnerving experience of being asked by faculty colleagues whether I might be aware of any useful dirt on Supreme Court nominees.
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Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”
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