Don Pesci: The role of humor and viciousness in politics

Anti-Jefferson cartoon in the 1800 election campaign depicts him burning the Constitution.

Anti-Jefferson cartoon in the 1800 election campaign depicts him burning the Constitution.

Republicans, we all know, do not know how to campaign -- which is why they lose elections. In the modern period, political jousting is either murderous or feckless. Twitterdom is full of deadly thrusts unleavened by humor, the opposite of wit.

Let’s suppose Connecticut Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bob “The ReBuilder” Stefanowski were Abe Lincoln, sans beard but with a similar sense of humor. Someone at a political rally once accused Lincoln of being two-faced – he was  being rather subtle on the issue of slavery– at which point Lincoln stopped his speech and shouted back, “If I had two faces, do you think I’d be wearing this one?”

The audience shivered with appreciative laughter, and laughter in politics is better than votes because it engages the stomach muscles and the thorax. Voting is a public duty most people choose to ignore, particularly in our day of snake oil salesmen. But laughter cleanses the soul and shocks the memory. Remembering a good joke is so much more pleasant that remembering a humorless politician.

So then, here is Lincoln Stefanowski ruminating – from the stump – on a recent Ned Lamont campaign rally in Hartford, Connecticut’s capital city and recently bailed out by the political money lenders under the gold-guilt dome in Hartford:

 “I see the Democrats had a rally in Minuteman Park in Hartford. All the usual celebs were there, minus Governor Dan Malloy, who’s in hiding. Democrats do not want the infectious Malloy touching their campaigns''. CTPost reported, “[Democrat candidate for State Treasurer Shawn] Wooden produced an awkward moment during the rally when he introduced Lamont as ‘Governor Malloy’ in an apparent slip of the tongue. Republicans continually paint Lamont as an extension of the unpopular Democratic governor, while Lamont emphasizes his differences from Malloy.” You see, at bottom – THEY KNOW – there are no policy differences between Malloy and Ned Lamont, who I hear is a wealthy businessman with only a smattering of political experience like… well, never mind.

The paper tells us that “Lamont, in his speech, emphasized that the Democratic ticket represented ‘change.’” But Ned favors more taxes and tax hand-outs to corpulent big businesses fleeing the state. All this sounds wearily familiar: Lamont is the Malloy who wasn’t there. And the only real change that can be expected of the man I called “Ned Malloy” is a sweep of change from people’s pockets. My campaign offers real political change, and we won’t assault your wallets or put a regulator under your bed to adjust the pictures in your house.”

A close friend, Philip Clark, noted Lincoln’s 1846 campaign against Peter Cartwright. Lincoln “asked Cartwright if General [Andrew] Jackson did right in the removal – I believe it was – of the bank deposits. Cartwright evaded the question” – no big surprise there; it happens all the time among politicians on the stump – “and gave a very indefinite answer. Lincoln remarked that Cartwright reminded him of a hunter he once knew who recognized the fact that in summer the deer were red and in winter gray, and at one season therefore a deer might resemble a calf. The hunter had brought down one at long range when it was hard to see the difference, and boasting of his own marksmanship had said: ‘I shot at it so as to hit it if it was a deer and miss it if it was a calf.’ This convulsed the audience, and carried them with Lincoln.”

The pundits are telling us that the upcoming gubernatorial campaign will be vicious though, one hopes, not quite a vicious as the John Adams-Thomas Jefferson campaign of 1800. Students of history will recall that all the elements of a modern campaign sprouted from this nursery bed.

Jefferson, it will be recalled, was Adams's vice president. The principals, Jefferson and Adams, were, of course, above campaigning; the slugfest was run by associates. The Jefferson camp boldly asserted Adams was a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." The Adams camp said Jefferson was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."

The two contestants viewed the battle from afar. Jefferson was not above hiring a hatchet man, James Callender, a political pamphleteer and newspaper editor, to spread campaign muck, while Adams considered himself above such low tactics. Callender proved effective in convincing dupable Americans – presidents at the time were elected through the Electoral College -- that Adams desperately wanted to attack France, and Jefferson prevailed in the election.

Eventually, the free-roving Callender turned against both Alexander Hamilton, whom he rightly accused of infidelity, and Jefferson, for having produced children by one of his slaves. Callender eventually was undone by his own bitterness and alcoholism. He was seen in drunken stupor in 1803, and later his body was recovered from the James River.

More Lincoln and less Callender would better suit the temperament of non-twittering voters in Connecticut.

Don Pesci is a Vernon. Conn.-based columnist.