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Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Writer's Life 10/2 - Dirty Tricks

Here are excerpts from a piece at, heavily edited by yours truly.

Rod Shealy was a consultant and strategist for the Republican Party. In 1990 his sister, Sherry Martschink, was running for office in South Carolina. He was concerned that  conservative voters partial to her would neglect the Republican primary since an African American was leading in the Democratic primary, and state law allowed a voter to vote in only one primary. If too many people voted in the Democratic primary, Martschink wouldn’t be able to recover. In order to ensure votes in the Republican primary, Shealy hired an unemployed black fisherman named Benjamin Hunt Jr. to run for Congress as a Republican, even going so far as to pay the filing fee himself. Martschink was defeated and the plot was uncovered. Shealy was pegged with a $500 fine, which he glibly referred to as “a political parking ticket.”
James K. Polk, a Democrat, was up against Henry Clay of the Whig Party. The election swung on a number of issues, the most important hinging on slavery. In an attempt to garner the abolitionist vote, Clay and the Whigs played up Polk’s slave-owning status—a delicate balancing act, since Clay owned slaves himself. In order to condemn Polk, they concocted a rumor that he had branded 40 of his slaves. The story quickly spread. Polk vociferously denied it. His team brought out evidence showing that the story had been plagiarized from one about a different man. Apologies and retractions soon followed, but the the Whigs never recovered from the backlash and Polk was elected.
A relatively unknown Minnesota congresswoman, Coya Knutson was the first woman from her home state to be elected to Congress. An independent voter, she was frequently challenged by her own party, and defeated her opponents time and time again. On Mother’s Day 1958, during Knutson’s campaign for a third term, a letter was published that had been signed by her husband, titled “Coya Come Home.” In it, Andy Knutson pleaded with his wife, saying, “I’m sick and tired of having you run around with other men all the time and not your husband.” This played on the rumors that Coya was having an affair with her campaign manager. Even though she could have cited her husband’s abuse (she was frequently seen with black eyes) or his alcoholism to defend herself, she refused to reveal them to the public. She ended up losing by a slim margin. Andy later admitted to not writing the letter. Someone else had paid him to sign it. The author’s identity was never discovered.
In 1977, Ed Koch ran for mayor of New York City. He won a run-off election against fellow Democrats. Koch later described the primary as “a civil war . . . brother against brother.” A lifelong bachelor with no children, rumors had always swirled about his sexual orientation. Posters were found all over the city stating: “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Everyone suspected Cuomo, or his son Andrew, but no proof was ever found. In order to combat the rumors, Koch’s campaign manager had him constantly smooch and hold hands with Bess Myerson, a former Miss America.
By the early 1930s, Upton Sinclair was a famous novelist and an instrumental part of the reforms sweeping across the meatpacking industry thanks to his eye-opening 1906 novel The Jungle. A socialist at heart, he felt the place he could affect the most change was public office, so he ran for governor of California. Having already failed twice on the Socialist ticket, Sinclair switched to the Democratic Party, emboldened by FDR’s successful presidential bid and the implementation of the New Deal. Fears of a rampant flood of poverty-stricken immigrants danced around the heads of California voters, a fact Sinclair’s opponents gleefully exploited. An attack ad, one of the first ever devised, featured a number of “interviews” with people denouncing the idea of an influx of hobos. Many, if not all, of these men were actors reading from scripts written by Republican strategists. They worked. Sinclair lost.
One of the most infamous attack ads of all time aired in 1964 during Lyndon B. Johnson’s brutal campaign against Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was seen as too accepting of the idea of using nuclear weapons, and it was that fear which Johnson’s team played on. The commercial, aired constantly despite Johnson paying for only one airing, featured a young girl picking petals of a daisy while counting up to 10. Immediately after she finished, a military voice began counting back down to one. Upon reaching the end of the countdown, the girl looked up, scared, and a mushroom cloud filled the screen. Johnson’s voice then declared the stakes were too high to be careless about one’s vote.
Andrew Jackson had a reputation for toughness, his nickname Old Hickory, and he needed every bit of it to survive the controversy which arose after his opponent, the incumbent President John Quincy Adams, revealed a number of facts in a series of pamphlets known as the Coffin Handbills. Jackson was accused of the slaughter of 1,000 unarmed Native Americans - and having eaten a dozen of them, then trying to force his men to do the same. The handbills featured the images of six different coffins, each representing a soldier who had been executed by Jackson for desertion. The trick didn’t do enough to sway public opinion. Jackson won the election.
George Smathers, a US Senator from Florida from 1951 to 1969, is little more than a footnote in history. Supposedly, during his primary campaign against Claude Pepper, Smathers is said to have used his voters’ general lack of education during a speech laden with unfamiliar words which would sound dirty to anyone who didn’t understand them. “Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper before his marriage habitually practiced celibacy. Smathers denied ever giving the speech and offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could prove otherwise—a deal nobody took. Despite the accusation, Smathers defeated Pepper.

My thanks to the kind folks who made purchases today at the floating book shop. Special thanks to Monsey, who donated ten paperback best sellers and insisted on paying for a heavy hardcover book on vitamins. She is a sweetheart.
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