Unabashed Lying: Old or New?

As the 2012 campaign has gone on, Mitt Romney has begun stretching the truth more and more, many times lying entirely. At Maddow Blog, Steve Benen has been chronicling Romney’s dishonesty with weekly installments of Mitt’s Mendacity and the list never disappoints. So, how prevalent has unabashed, indefensible lying been in past elections? The first cases of such blatant lying had nothing to do with policies; it focused almost entirely on personal attacks:

Candidates usually did not direct those attacks themselves; in the 1800 election Thomas Jefferson hired and funded journalist James Callender to disparage his opponent, John Adams. Callender did so accordingly, claiming that Adams had a ”hideous hermaphroditical character,” insinuating that Adams was very womanly. Callender had no proof of that. While Jefferson did not explicitly make that statement, he encouraged it.

The 1828 campaign, which many consider the dirtiest election in American history, saw Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams trade attacks through their respective newspapers that had only the slightest truth.

Soon, though, the candidates began uttering their personal attacks themselves:

  • In 1836, candidate Davy Crockett claimed that Martin Van Buren wore women’s clothes and ”he is laced up in corsets, such as women in a town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the best of them.” There was no truth to that.
  • During the 1856 campaign, Republican John Fremont stated that James Buchanan’s head tilt, which was a result of congenital palsy, was from a failed attempt to hang himself. This was a lie.
  • In 1876, Democratic Samuel Tilden accused Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of stealing money from soldiers killed in the Civil War and shooting his own mother. As far as anyone can tell, there is no truth to either allegation.
  • Not to be out done, Hayes accused Tilden of having syphilis and being an alcoholic (same link). At the time, alcohol was a contentious issue and the accusation of alcoholism was extremely serious. Both of those are fiction as well.

And the disparaging remarks did not end.

  • In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt called William Taft a rat in a corner.
  • In 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt called his opponent, Alf Landon, “the white mouse who wants to live in the White House.” While neither Teddy Roosevelt nor FDR’s insults are actually lies (no one actually believed their opponents were rodents), both demonstrate the use of dishonesty to personally attack other candidates.
  • Not much more needs to be said about Watergate and Nixon’s deceit. Lyndon B. Johnson used many dirty tactics during his campaign, but there was no evidence of shameless lying.
  • In the 1992 Presidential Election, George H.W. Bush asserted “my dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos,” referring to Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Once again. Bush limited his literal lying (although the statement was clearly false) to personal attacks.

In 2008, John McCain set a new precedent for lying, running very-deceptive advertising that all but explicitly lied about Obama’s tax policies and energy strategy. Nevertheless, McCain at least generally attempted to back up his assertions with right wing studies or a highly misrepresented quote. Romney has moved beyond that to lies that are impossible to back-up.

Take his comments about Obama’s State of the Union Address and the President not mentioning ”debt” or ”deficit” in it. At least, that’s what Romney claimed. But that is 100 percent false: Obama said debt or deficit six times in his State of the Union.

Or how about Romney claiming Obamadoesn’t have a jobs plan. Obama presented his jobs plan to Congress last September.

There is no grey area here. These are out and out lies. No candidate has ever lied about policy the way Romney is lying now.

Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum posted a widely-read blog yesterday titled, ”Times Have Changed, It’s Okay to Lie.” As he argues,

Lots of politicians are probably still reluctant to lie too brazenly because they’re still working under the old rules, where the national media might call you on it and it might actually make a difference. The smart ones have figured out that this isn’t how it works anymore.

Romney is certainly putting this hypothesis to the test.

Danny Vinik

Danny Vinik is an intern at the Washington Monthly.