Every four years we get not only a presidential election but also a ferocious debate over how we elect the president. Is this really the best way to elect the leader of the United States and, by default, the leader of the free world? Must we be satisfied with campaigns that become carnivals of trash and trivia?
In a world amok, when President Obama insists on leading from behind and two-thirds of the voters tell pollsters the country is careering in the wrong direction, can we seriously consider one prospective successor who dwells on the delicate feelings of an overweight, overwrought beauty queen of dubious character; or another, her opponent, who takes the bait with a story about how he got Miss Universe to slim down to save her crown and title? This was more an infomercial for a miracle diet than an audition to play the Palace.
It was once the vice presidential candidate who was chosen for his talent to insult and affront, to raise the temperature of debate with the vulgarity to shield the presidential candidate from having to do it. That wasn't the task this week for Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence. Instead of invective, the Veeps-in-waiting were assigned to supply a modicum of calm after the stormy debate of their running mates. They only half-succeeded. The split television screen mostly revealed Kaine's hyperactivity. Where was the nanny with the Ritalin?
The debate did change the subject for the five days before the next presidential debate, enabling everyone time to refocus and adjust attitudes. The Democrat struggled to defend the status quo, arguing that the economic recovery is a success; and the Republican replied that voters in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, "know different." But "Miss Piggy" commanded the attention of the media, which cover the campaign as if it were a reality show hungry for ratings. The question for the rest of us is whether 'tis better to choose Donald Trump, who requires on-the-job training, or Hillary Clinton, the chairman of Clinton Inc., who has pre-sold her presidency — if there is one — to foreign Clinton Foundation contributors.
The beauty queen episode, as a microcosm illustrating the tenor of the campaign, hardly bequeaths confidence in the electoral process — until we look back at other campaigns that became serious once the candidates dispensed with the lies and the garbage-covered epithets. The rowdy politics of America, which is a reflection of a rowdy national character, after all, didn't begin to turn raucous until after the election of our first president, who stood above the fray and won all 69 of the electoral votes of that early day. But George Washington was chosen by a process that would be wholly unacceptable today. There were no primaries, no nominating conventions, no competing candidates and no debate on issues of interest to the masses. And the people were not allowed near a ballot box.
"The election of George Washington was a perfect expression of the popular will," writes Paul Boller in "Presidential Campaigns," a chronicle of a quirky system through our rough-and-rowdy eras. Politics got considerably more complicated once the general assumed office and national survival was no longer at issue. Good manners and dignified behavior have rarely characterized an American presidential campaign since.
Political parties, which Washington had warned against, quickly devolved into hyperpartisan sniping. Venom seemed to spill from everyone's mouths, beginning with the struggle between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The two contenders restrained their own rancor, but their supporters in the "media" of their day — handbills, pamphlets and party newspapers in which opponents were "denounced, disparaged, damned, decried, denigrated, and declaimed" — definitely did not.
Throughout the history of the republic, campaigns have been circuses, carnivals, brawls and burlesque. Ronald Reagan described politics as "show business," and though he was ridiculed by his opponents as merely a grade-B movie actor who achieved stardom as the co-star of a chimpanzee, he got the last laugh on the way to the White House.
If vulgar rhetoric and character defamations seem worse today, that's because the megaphones are bigger and the targets are broader and closer at hand. Sex and morality, in varying degrees, have always been fair game. In 1884, an English visitor found the match between Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine dominated by the "copulative habits" of one candidate and the "prevaricative habits" of the other. Sound familiar?
Whether Donald Trump calling immigrants rapists and murderers was worse than Hillary Clinton describing half of his supporters as "deplorables," a collection of racists and bigots, is a draw. It's business as usual. The good news is there's only a month to go.