The Wednesday Pop Culture Rant thinks we would do well to remember politics in this country has never been a picnic on the green.1 In 1859, George Kyle headed to the polls in Baltimore, ballots tucked under his arm (you had to bring your own in those days, provided by a party leader or clipped from the newspaper), when he was assailed by miscreants from the other party. Very assailed. Kyle was shot and his brother killed in the melee. When the election was contested, the result was upheld on the reasoning that a “man of ordinary courage” could have found a way to cast his vote.2
When opponents discovered presidential candidate Grover Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock, they would chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” at Cleveland rallies and paid children to follow him around town yelling, “Daddy! Daddy!” Cleveland won the election anyway.3
Nothing can top the nastiness of the years leading up to the Civil War. Two days after delivering a blistering anti-slavery speech, Senator Charles Sumner found himself nearly beaten to death by a cane in the hands of Representative Preston Brooks. On the floor of the Senate chambers.4 His colleague drew a pistol so no one could come to Sumner’s aid. The senator suffered lasting brain damage, and Brooks received a $300 fine and won re-election.
This election cycle merely demonstrates that one group of politicians and their supporters have reverted to the ways of our ancestors while another group stands around acting shocked and dismayed. The media has chosen to report only on the antics like the wrap-up show of a reality series.
The Rant says if someone behaves like a bigot, call them a bigot. If they want to marginalize the poor and minorities, stand up and say no. But then you better have a vision and a policy to counter the angry, yammering heads. You better articulate what is at stake rather than merely decrying the lack of civility. Stop wringing your hands and start throwing some punches of substance. Lincoln could mix it up with best of them, but he always insisted that we could do better, be better, live better than merely shouting louder the demagogues.
- And if you believe a genteel time of political discourse ever existed, “I’ll pick you up a sundress and a parasol and you can just sashay your pretty little self around the town square,” in the immortal words of Cosmo Kramer.
- Clearly, “ordinary courage” isn’t what it used to be. The Rant grumbles when the blue-haired lady from the League of Women Voters makes us spell our name more than once to find us on the rolls. Thanks to Jill Lepore of The New Yorker for the Kyle anecdote.
- Cleveland had the mother of his child, Maria Halpin, committed to an asylum so he could put the boy up for adoption and hide the scandal. Upon being elected president, he tried to improve his image by marrying the daughter of a friend, 27 years his junior. Stay classy Cleveland.
- Brooks waited until the Senate galleries had cleared, so no ladies would be present for the beat-down. Because manners and the good old days. Brooks had wanted a duel, but his friend said dueling was for gentlemen and Sumner was no better than a drunkard. Stay classy Preston.