A History of Dirty Deeds

Book Shows Campaign Trickery Is Nothing New

Posted October 15, 2007 at 4:22pm

From the recount in 2000 to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, presidential campaigns seem like they are getting dirtier each cycle. The rumors of stolen elections and extensive smear campaigns put forth the question: Is this a new trend?

The answer is no, according to Joseph Cummins’ new book, “Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns.”

“We’ve been playing dirty politics all along,” Cummins said, adding that it goes on in many nations, not just the United States. “Every dirty election in current times can easily be matched by one further back in history,” he writes in the book’s introduction.

Cummins spent a year and a half researching presidential races in various books and articles as well as online, and what he came up with was proof that times haven’t changed all that much.

For instance, the election of 1876, in which Rutherford B. Hayes faced off against Samuel Tilden, was the dirtiest and most corrupt according to Cummins, who compared Hayes’ campaign manager to former Bush White House strategist Karl Rove and describes the campaign as foreshadowing the 2000 election.

After vigorous smear campaigns, the election came down to the electoral votes of just three states and many historians believe Hayes’ camp stole the election.

“For the earlier elections a lot of [information] was not readily available,” Cummins said. “That was a lot of the fun, digging around trying to find this stuff.”

In the tome, Cummins writes about every presidential election in U.S. history, rating each on a scale of one to 10 on the “sleazometer.” The book tells of Davy Crockett, who Cummins calls “the Ann Coulter of his day,” slandering Martin Van Buren and accusing him of wearing women’s clothing; Democrats accusing Hayes of shooting his mother; and Ronald Reagan’s camp stealing Jimmy Carter’s debate book.

“I think the inspiration [for the book] came from listening to people bemoan the fact, in maybe the last three or four presidential elections, that presidential politics are getting dirtier and dirtier and people are wondering what we can do about it,” Cummins said. “A light bulb went on in my head and I said let me take a look back and see if that’s true.”

Cummins spends a few pages on each race, breaking them down into a quick story about the previous presidency, an overview of the candidates and the campaign. He also includes blurbs about especially foul tricks and other fun facts, such as the story about John F. Kennedy slipping into a room with a call girl a few moments before beating Richard Nixon in the first televised debates.

“One reason I really enjoyed this book is the fact that we’re not getting dirtier. The electoral process is chaotic, it’s somewhat insane. I myself found that kind of comforting.”