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Starting a rumor at the Iowa caucuses is small compared to our colorful history of political dirty tricks

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

Donald Trump has been expressing outrage that Sen. Ted Cruz’s people went into Iowa caucus sites and spread a false rumor that Dr. Ben Carson just quit the presidential race.

“These are dishonest people, these politicians,” Trump said. “These are worse than real-estate people in New York, I’m telling you. No, no, these are truly dishonest people.”

I didn’t know that politicians can be dishonest. That’s a new one on me. Really?

Welcome to the world of politics. Mr. Trump. And while you have had quite a bit of success so far, apparently, political dirty tricks may have caught you off-guard in Iowa. Well, there’s more where that came from. You see, national political campaigns have been full of dirty tricks for a very long time.

• In the 1880 Presidential election between Congressman James Garfield and General Winfield Scott Hancock, a letter, presumably signed by Garfield, turned up in which he proclaimed his support for unregulated Chinese immigration to the United States.

At the time, there was a widespread prejudice against Chinese immigration, although they made up less than one percent of the population.

Garfield finally proved that the letter was forged, and the newspapers printed a retraction. He went on to win the race by a mere 2,000 votes.

• And the next time you listen to a modern-day politician complain of being the victim of dirty tricks, just keep the 1800 election in mind.

OK, it happened a long time ago and may have escaped our minds by now, but it’s worth recalling.
That race was between Federalist Party candidate and incumbent, President John Adams, and the Democratic-Republican candidate, Thomas Jefferson.

Yes, it appears that those two parties were one in those days. Amazing, isn’t it?

Jefferson contacted one of his supporters, pamphleteer James Callender, to print a series of tracts to spread lies about Adams.

Callender’s publications alleged that Adams planned to go to war with France, and that he had a “hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

Callender’s attacks damaged Adams’ credibility and helped Jefferson win the election.

Callender wanted a political favor in return. He wanted to be appointed postmaster of Richmond, Virginia, but Jefferson thought he was too radical and instead appointed a moderate to the position.

Callender then turned on Jefferson, publishing a number of pamphlets against the president, including that he fathered children with his slave, Sally Hemmings.

The part about Jefferson and Hemmings was actually true, as proven so by DNA testing 200 years later.

• In the 2000 Republican primaries in South Carolina, something similar happened to Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But it was not true.

Polls showed that he was beating Texas Gov. George W. Bush in that state, so Bush strategist Karl Rove came to the rescue.

About two weeks before voting, pamphlets started appearing under windshields at candidate debates that featured McCain and his “illegitimate black daughter.” Then anonymous pollsters called voters asking them if they would still vote for McCain if the senator was mentally unstable, due to his time as a POW in Vietnam.

Bush won the state by 11 points.

• In the 1998 presidential campaign, Lee Atwater, an advisor to Vice President George H.W. Bush, may have saved the race by coming up with the Willie Horton ad campaign against Democratic candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

The campaign played to the country’s racial divide, and labeled Dukakis as being soft on crime. Bush won by a landslide.

Atwater was made chairman of the Republican National Committee after the win. However, after only a year in that position, he was stricken with incurable brain cancer. Before the cancer claimed him at age 40, he sent a letter of apology to Dukakis.

• In 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon agreed before their big presidential debate that neither of them would use makeup. Of course, they both reneged.

Kennedy sported a layer of professionally applied makeup, while Nixon used an over-the-counter product called Lazy Shave to conceal his five-o’clock shadow.

When Kennedy’s handlers found out that Nixon sweated easily, they turned the thermostat a few degrees higher. The result was devastating to Nixon, who was seen by 70 million viewers as he dried his face with a handkerchief.

Nixon was only four years older than Kennedy, but looked much older, and appeared to be struggling through the debate. Kennedy looked youthful and relaxed. He won by 100,000 votes. The difference may have been the thermostat setting.

• In 1968, Nixon pulled a little trick himself by sending a message to President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, claiming that he would negotiate a better cease-fire deal for his country after the American presidential election. Nixon was running against Democratic nominee Vice-President Hubert Humphrey.

Thieu then walked away from the peace talks. In 1973, the U.S. reached a peace deal with North Vietnam - under much of the same terms as those discussed in 1968. But more than 22,000 American soldiers died in those five years. Nixon won the 1968 election by less than a one percent difference.

• Then, of course, there was Watergate, which forced Nixon to resign in 1974 rather than face impeachment and removal from office.

So, a false rumor being spread in a caucus hall is really not all that unusual when it comes to good old U.S.A presidential campaign dirty tricks. We kind of expect it. We have seen a lot worse.