Voting: the antidote to dirty political tricks
During the 1884 presidential campaign, opponents of Grover Cleveland aggressively spread the rumor that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. In cities across the country, opposition crowds chanted "Ma, Ma, where's my pa?" The dirty trick didn't work, though. Cleveland won and his supporters eventually answered the taunt with "gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"
Political dirty tricks in America are as old as American politics. Davy Crockett, a former congressman, wrote in 1836 that Martin Van Buren not only wore a corset, but that it was tighter than those worn by most of the ladies in town. Joseph Kennedy reportedly paid one Joseph Russo to run for Congress in 1946 against John F. Kennedy, thus making him the second Joseph Russo on the ballot and assuring JFK's victory. In 1972 a forged letter, published by the Manchester, N.H. Union-Leader, purporting to be from Edmund Muskie and calling French-Canadians "Canucks," forced Mr. Muskie from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. In the 2000 South Carolina Republican presidential primary, a rumor campaign asserting that John McCain was the actual father of his adopted Bangladeshi daughter, might have cost Mr. McCain the race.
The Watergate scandal, resulting from the failed burglary of Democratic National Headquarters, probably is the most infamous of dirty tricks. But even before Watergate, the Nixon campaign in 1972 took the practice to new lows. Donald Segretti, a campaign operative in charge of dirty tricks, went to prison for them.
The Internet age has made dirty tricks more pervasive. During the volatile recall election for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker this year, for example, thousands of voters received emails telling them that if they had signed a recall petition, they didn't need to vote.
Monday in Lackawanna County, election officials fielded calls from voters who said they had received calls telling them, falsely, that their voting places had been changed.
Democracy has survived the practices. But the most disturbing development in the world of political dirty tricks is their adoption as public policy. New laws designed to suppress voting, including Pennsylvania's inoperative Voter ID law, are disturbing examples, along with law and policies allowing for anonymous contributions to organizations that conduct hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of negative ad campaigns.
Fortunately, voting itself is the antidote to the poison of dirty tricks, legislative or otherwise. Hopefully you voted yesterday. Casting a ballot not only is the exercise of a crucial right, but a clean answer to a dirty trick.