- Thomas Elder, prominent Whig politician, 1840
"Passion and prejudice properly aroused and directed...do about as well as principle and reason in a party contest."
In a bitterly-contested presidential election, a Democratic candidate praised for his intellectual demeanor and idealistic spirit is the target of vicious personal attacks that question his patriotism and his ethnic background.
It was 1800, and Thomas Jefferson was the subject of rumors and crude innuendo circulated in newspapers and handbills passed out in taverns claiming that he was the son of a half-breed Indian squaw squired by a Virginia mulatto father.
Obviously, things haven't changed that much.
The 2008 election has been marked in recent months by an endless round of negative ads and robo-calls attacking Barack Obama's patriotism, honesty, integrity, faith, experience.
Watch a slideshow of the most hate-filled flyers and mailers in the 2008 campaign:
In September, the Suffolk University College Republicans came under fire after creating a flyer depicting Barack Obama with a digitally superimposed pig's nose and smeared lipstick. The text reads: "You know, you can put lipstick on a pig. but it's still a pig." The cliche was used by Obama in a speech mocking John McCain's claim to be an agent of change. But it was widely misinterpreted as an attack on Sarah Palin, who famously described her personality with the line: "You know the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick." The flyer, which was found on a bulletin board in the university's Ridgeway building, was condemned by Bob Rosenthal, chair of the school's Communication and Journalism Department. "Obviously freedom of speech is important, the First Amendment is important, but this is in incredibly poor taste," he told the Suffolk Journal. "It does nothing to further political debate."
In late September, a white supremacist group spread this anti-Obama political leaflet headlined "Do You Want A Black President?: Black Ruled Nations most unstable and violent in the world" and featuring a doctored photo of Obama wearing a turban around the New Jersey neighborhood of Roxbury. It goes on to ask "Why should we seal our fate by allowing a Black ruler to destroy us?" The group behind the leaflet, the League of American Patriots restricts its membership to "adult heterosexual men and women who are entirely of European Christian ancestry."
A flyer from the Republican Party of Virginia attacking Obama for wanting to appease terrorists and leaders of rogue nations made the rounds of the state in early October. The photo featured the eyes of a man who looks like Obama although it seems to depict Osama Bin Laden and is headlined, "America Must Look Evil In The Eye And Never Flinch." Elsewhere, the sinister faces of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, North Korea's Kim Jong-Il and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, are featured.
This mailer sent out to likely voters in Florida features a horrifying image of the Statue of Liberty stripped of its eyes, nose and mouth with the headline, "If the Democrats win the White House this November, AMERICA WILL BE UNRECOGNIZABLE" in an obvious attempt to play to anti-immigrant hysteria.
One of the crudest flyers, distributed recently to 200 members of a Republican women's group in California, the Chaffey Community Republican Women, Federated, plays to the worst racial stereotypes. The newsletter states that if Obama is elected, his image will appear on food stamps, instead of dollar bills like other presidents. The Obama Bucks features a smiling Obama surrounded by a bucket of fried chicken, ribs, and watermelon. In her apology letter, the group's president, Diane Fedele, said that she only wanted to make light of a comment Obama made that as an African-American, he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."
This mailer, sent out by the Republican Party of Florida, features a menacing photo of Obama against an all-black background with the headline, "Crime & Punishment." The other side of the mailer states, "Obama: 'he acted more as a friend to criminals than cops.'" It concludes, "Barack Obama, not who you think he is."
This flier, distributed in Wisconsin last week, pretends to be a message from Barack Hussein Obama II for President. Crudely playing to racial fears, the letter states, "Change means... BLACK! We will take care of our people when we win this election on November 4th, 2008. Don't wait, vote now and take a friend that will vote for the next Black President."
This mailer, an official product of the McCain-Palin campaign, depicts passengers at an airport below the headline in ransom-letter-type stating "Terrorists Don't Care Who They Hurt, Why Should We Care What They Have to Say, Barack Obama Thinks Terrorists Just Need A Good Talking To." The mailer, which McCain reportedly said he is "absolutely" proud of, concludes "Barack Obama. Not Who You Think He Is."
The negative personal attacks of the current campaign stands out, compared to dirty tricks used in recent elections like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads in 2004 and the rumors spread about John McCain's adopted daughter in 2000, because they're being voiced by the Republican candidate and his running mate, rather than their surrogates or sympathetic groups.
"One thing that has struck me is that it's been left to McCain and Palin to directly make some of the personal attacks on Obama's character," says Kerwin Swint, the author of "Mudslingers: The Top 25 Negative Political Campaigns of All Time."
"In the past, this would have been done by outside groups like 527s or PACs. Past Republican candidates haven't directly made these attacks. But those groups haven't been there for McCain like they have for previous candidates and that's left him in the position of having to do it himself. He may not enjoy doing it but his advisers have told him, "This is your only chance." And he's thrown it all at Obama - the only thing he held back on was [Rev.] Jeremiah Wright."
One of the most negative lines of attack used by McCain was the recent question: "Who is Barack Obama?"
"That suggests he's not who you think he is. It's a nefarious play to people's fears. 'Is he really a Muslim?' 'Is he close to terrorists?' He's not one of us. It's about making him seem scary and un-American."
Swint compared such attacks to the infamous ad used by late Senator Jesse Helms in his tough re-election campaign in 1990 against Harvey Gantt, the first black mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Those attacks have a not-so-subtle racial element to them, explains Joseph Cummins, the author of "Anything For a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises."
"It plays into people's pre-existing seeds of racism, that as a Muslim or as a black man, he's alien to the mainstream."
Cummins says that current campaign is in contention to make his list of the top 10 dirtiest presidential campaigns in American history. "The volume of stuff put out by the McCain campaign is pretty extraordinary."
Most of those ads have aired on TV, radio and the Internet and negative attacks have been used in robo-calls by the campaign and Republican party officials.
But some of the crudest attacks, many of which are circulated by independent operatives and players not affiliated with the McCain campaign, have used the oldest campaign technique in the book: flyers posted on bulletin boards and shoved under car windshield wipers.
The worst examples, shown in the accompanying slideshow, have used racist caricatures, implied that Obama has an affinity with Osama Bin Laden, and suggested that the country is on the verge of a race war.
There have been some anti-McCain flyers with caricatures of the candidate as a scarred POW but they did not appear during the general election and were distributed by McCain's contenders in the hotly-contested Republican primary.