The evolution of the presidential campaign

Aggressiveness is new, coarseness isn’t

THERE WAS A TIME when presidential candidates stayed home and left their campaigns to surrogates.  In his majestic history of the Civil War, Shelby Foote described the 1860 campaign as following in this tradition. “Lincoln himself did not campaign.  No presidential candidate ever had, such action being considered incommensurate with the dignity of the office.” Speeches by the nominees were given from the safety and comfort of home – the famous “front porch” speeches of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  It was said that William Howard Taft would have made more front porch speeches if there were porches strong enough to hold his 300-pound frame.

It was thought unseemly for presidential candidates to tour the nation and campaign.  Presidents needed to be called upon to serve; grasping for office did not fit the image set in stone by Washington, the American Coriolanus who had to be called back from his farm to serve a nation as its leader.  You can see this ethos reflected in the inaugural addresses of the early 19th Century.  Many presidents began their inaugural address with an expression of humble obedience to the will of the people. James Polk began thusly: “Without solicitation on my part, I have been chosen by the free and voluntary suffrages of my countrymen to the most honorable and most responsible office on earth.”

The ill-fated William Henry Harrison, who gave the longest inaugural address and died a month later, spoke wistfully of being  Called from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation.” Perhaps the most overwrought expression of humility was given by Franklin Pierce, who began his inaugural remarks with these self-flagellating words: “It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself . . . I repair to the post assigned me not as to one sought, but in obedience to the unsolicited expression of your will.”

Times have changed. Today we expect candidates to race across the nation in a contest of physical endurance. Aggressively seeking the presidency is not only allowed but encouraged. Candidates with light schedules are considered weak, or potentially unfit. The nominees push themselves to absurd lengths of endurance, so much so that Hillary Clinton felt compelled to attend a public event on a hot and humid day while struggling with pneumonia.  How did we turn so completely away from the expectation that presidential candidates must display disinterest in the job as a qualification, to today’s expectation that only those willing to engage in frenzied activity are truly fit for the job?

There are so many factors that influence our expectations about modern presidential elections that it seems a daunting task to attempt a definitive list. Technology and the ability to watch and hear events in real time, the proliferation of a 24/7 news cycle, and the rise of social media all play into how campaigns are conducted and how we, as citizens and voters, respond to them.  It was over a half century ago when Theodore White’s Making of the President 1960 marked a turning point of sorts, offering readers something they had never really had before: an insider’s view of how campaigns are run.  In White’s hands, presidential campaigns became the stuff of drama and suspense. White kept writing the Making of the President series through the 1972 election and the genre has proliferated over the years, from admirable efforts by Jack Germond and Jules Witcover to today’s breathlessly written campaign autopsies produced by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.  These campaign chronicles seem to quench a particular thirst that Americans have for the inside story, gossip, and “behind-the-scenes” color.  That thirst for the inside story bleeds into the popularity of reality television, that weird documentary form begun in 1973 as an earnest experiment by PBS when it broadcast An American Family.

Donald Trump understands the dynamics of reality television better than most, and certainly more so than does Clinton. He is the master practitioner who has pushed every button available to him to receive an abundance of free media, perhaps more than any presidential candidate in our lifetime. Clinton seems palpably uncomfortable in front of the cameras, a trait that does not endear her to the media and underscores the complaint that she is an inauthentic candidate.  Authenticity may be a mirage, but these appearances accumulate to create an impression that seems to be serving Trump’s needs quite well: whatever people think of him, they generally believe that they are seeing his authentic self, and overall that is a political plus.

Trump’s natural ability to understand how something plays with an audience includes his mastery of the sound bite.  This is on full display when he starts his name-calling routine (“little Marco,” “lying Ted,” “crooked Hillary”), using language that typically does not come out of the mouths of candidates. Of course name-calling, and worse, is part of the American tradition of ad hominem attack and personal vilification, a tradition as old as the nation itself.  We cannot claim to be the first generation of Americans who deride and vilify our political leaders. The charges and countercharges leveled against one another by the competing Federalists and Republican factions during the first Adams administration were vicious, mean-spirited, and personal.  Adams and his fellow Federalists thought that perhaps the sanctions of the Sedition Act would put a lid on the unrelenting attacks coming from Jeffersonian partisans, notably the editors of the Philadelphia Aurora, but the attempt to legislate the boundaries of political speech failed and nearly ruined Adams’s reputation.

Throughout our history, presidents have been as much reviled as respected. Lincoln was meanly caricatured; Cleveland mocked (“Ma, ma where’s my Pa?”); Wilson openly scorned by a recalcitrant GOP; FDR called a traitor to his class (and worse). Is the vitriol of 2016 different than the vitriol of 1800? Perhaps not to any measurable extent. What seems different in 2016 is the enormity of the problem, magnified by technology that enables rapid dissemination and real-time reaction. This campaign has been fertile ground for a coarseness of political debate that seems to have no limits, where some people feel at liberty to say things that go beyond the bounds of anything deemed civil and appropriate not so long ago.

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We should be better than that, but few of us have clean hands. It should not be considered funny, appropriate, or justifiable to reduce political debate to playground taunts and barroom epithets. We all sanction this bad behavior whenever we retweet a coarse remark or post an outrageously polarizing statement on Facebook.  It is “we the people” who bear the ultimate responsibility for our preferences and our actions, we the people who watch and revel in the reality TV presidential campaign that has made this election of 2016 perhaps the most unconventional contest for leadership in quite some time.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.