Let's hear it for the war of words coming to a close tomorrow, at last. (Applaud with one hand only.) The two candidates have sharpened our focus and nobody's been killed.
If you think we were more civil, if not necessarily kinder and gentler, in the past, read again about the events of 1804, when Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, leader of the opposition party, after a newspaper reported that Hamilton had cast "aspersions" on Burr's character. The newspaper didn't even say what the aspersions were, but Burr challenged him to a duel. (You want aspersions? Henry Clay called Andrew Jackson's mother a whore.)
So far the only published call for assassination this year was sounded across the sea. Charlie Brooker, a columnist for London's leftist daily Guardian, vented his spleen in a way that would have invited a visit from the Secret Service over here: "John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. - where are you now that we need you?"
We've had a grand ol' time making fun of John Kerry's Frenchified tastes, but he's not the first candidate to be called a frog lover. One Federalist sneered at Jefferson's American roots, accusing him of eating "ground Southern corn, bacon and hominy, with an occasional change of fricasseed bullfrog." (Some of my Southern friends say that's actually not a bad dinner.) If Jefferson became president, this wary Federalist continued, wives ands daughters were not safe from "seduction and violence." (Wives and daughters are of course safe from presidents today.)
Personal attacks on families of modern candidates pale when compared to earlier times. Andrew Jackson, as we have seen, had a particularly hard time of it, and not just for his mother. He blamed his critics for the death of his wife Rachel, who died before he was sworn in. "I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God," she said on learning that her husband had defeated John Quincy Adams, "than to live in that palace in Washington." She got her wish.
What is different today is the impact of "personality." Personality is a modern psychological term referring to likeability and relates more to the effect a candidate has on us than to his actual capabilities. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton score high likeability numbers. George McGovern, Mike Dukakis and John Kerry don't. Richard Nixon was not likeable, either, but his election was merely the exception that proves the rule.
Beyond the frothing-at-the-mouth Bush haters, voters generally find this president to be a likeable guy and John Kerry to be a cold fish. It's possible that personality will determine the winner this time, too.