Presidential campaigns are notorious for unleashing scurrilous rhetoric. Only George Washington was elected as an uncontroversial reflection of the nation's will. Then we got political parties, and it was downhill after that.
By 1800, when John Adams had been president for four years, he was inundated by what he called "squibs, scoffs and sarcasms" -- nasty stuff imbedded in vicious attacks on his character and reputation. Presidential campaigns are actually a lot nicer today. Paul F. Boller, the historian who collects outrageous examples in his book "Presidential Campaigns," cites speculations on the "copulative habits" of one candidate to the "prevaricative habits" of another in campaigns of yesteryear.
But impugning the motives of the voter, and not merely the candidate, is bending politics to an imaginative new standard. Some of the partisans on the left are frustrated because Republicans and other conservatives, who are supposed to be mean and vicious racists, aren't reading their assigned lines. Lee Siegel, for example, who writes about culture for several left-wing magazines, accuses Mitt Romney of having to attract racist voters with appeals that the right-thinking might not notice. Writing in The New York Times, he accuses Romney of exploiting his white skin with Americans "who find the thought of a black president unbearable."
The snappy headline above his op-ed essay asks, "What's Race Got To Do With It?" and a prominent subhead answers the question: "Mitt Romney is ahead because he is the whitest white man to run for president in years."
Lest we get the wrong idea that Siegel actually means what he says, he's not measuring the density of melanin pigment in the Romney skin. Instead, he writes, "I'm referring to the countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways he telegraphs to a certain type of voter that he is the cultural alternative to America's first black president."
What's particularly pernicious about this argument is that millions of Americans, enough to win a national election, have demonstrated that, whether they agree or disagree with all of the president's politics, they elected a black man to the highest office in the land. Herman Cain held conservative Republicans in thrall for weeks until his campaign fell apart for reasons that had nothing to do with race.
But in Siegel's fanciful account, Romney cleverly exploits his "meticulously cultivated whiteness" in ways the rest of us could never imagine. For example, "he is nearly always in immaculate white shirtsleeves." White shirts? Imagine that. He has been known to hum a bar or two of "White Christmas" before the glowing yuletide log. Barack Obama, a natty dresser himself, occasionally wears white shirts, too.
Is he a traitor to his class? (Who remembers the color of Herman Cain's shirts?) But it gets worse. Romney appeals to narrow-minded, small-town prejudice with good manners. "He is implacably polite, tossing off phrases like, 'Oh, gosh!' with Stepford bonhomie." No F-word bombs for him.
This "could only be the world of the rapacious Babbitt, of small-town Rotarians," of civic-club luncheons of rubber chicken and ham in raisin sauce, and only Mitt Romney would say it's delicious. He knows and recites the lyrics of "America the Beautiful," no doubt warming the hearts of Ku Klux Klansmen lurking about the edges of the political debate, looking for a ballot box.
Even the virtue of a Founding Father is retrograde in Siegel's understanding of America: "He has mastered Benjamin Franklin's honesty as the 'best policy': a practiced insincerity, an instant sunniness that, though evidently inauthentic, provides a bland bass note that keeps everyone calm."
Though he is a Mormon, Siegel's real targets are evangelical Christians. They suffer a core fantasy "that the Barack Obama years, far from being the way forward, are in fact a historical aberration, a tear in the white space-time continuum." He doesn't say how he uncovered this fantasy, but he knows in his bones that Romney wants to conjure a social and cultural experience from that damaging past.
The essay was illustrated by a large photograph of the extended Romney family, with the candidate and his wife surrounded by children and grandchildren. Sure enough, they're all white. But some of them didn't get the word. They're wearing light blue and even -- horrors! -- black shirts. What on earth is Romney really up to? His racist followers know: "Mitt Romney is the conventional man with the outsider faith -- an apocalyptic pragmatist -- who will wrest the country back from the unconventional man with the intolerable outsider color."
The New York Times concedes that it's having trouble getting its facts straight and has asked for help from its readers. "I'm looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about," Arthur Brisbane, the newspaper's ombudsman, pleaded last week. What it needs, as we move into another presidential campaign, are editors who spike "squibs, scoffs and sarcasms" -- and racist screeds.