Political mudslinging not new, professors say

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    JAMIE HEATO

    Character assassination has long been a part of politics. Many say the political climate in America is steadily, drastically deteriorating, but what has the issue of character meant in past elections?

    “America seems to ask more of the moral character of politicians than it used to or than it does from any other public figure,” said Sharilyn Ridenhour, a part-time BYU English teacher. She questions how much the moral character of an individual affects his ability to lead a nation.

    One of the functions of popular politics, which goes back to mother England or even Rome, is that candidates seek to prove they are better than the rest, said Neil York, professor of political science at BYU. “Mud slinging is as old as any system where people are running for office.”

    Even Washington was slandered as president said York. Ridenhour said she read that Washington died of a venereal disease.

    Jefferson was also slandered on the issue of sexual promiscuity, said York. He said during Jefferson’s campaign there were slaves living at Monticello who had lighter skin and red hair. The big question of that election was whether slaves were soon to be his children; such was the nature of the public newspaper in the 1800’s.

    During the Jacksonian era, Andrew Jackson’s wife was accused of being a bigamist and that she wasn’t legally divorced from her first husband, said York. John Quincy Adams was accused of having an affair with a Russian woman and the list continues.

    “Most mudslinging back-fires if it doesn’t mesh with national concerns,” said York.

    In 1960, when Nixon ran against Kennedy, he had endured a number of scandals in the Eisenhower administration, said Kelly Patterson, professor of political science at BYU.

    By 1968 the nation was facing riots, a faltering economy and an assassination; these disturbing events led America to take a chance on character, realizing maybe they did need Nixon, Patterson continued.

    Patterson said that the intensity of character assassination may seem worse today because we are living in an age of media. “Technology provides the means of exploiting character issues.”

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