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A Look at Dirty Tricks in U.S. Elections

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 2 4

When an election year rolls around there are bound to be calls to not “go negative” or to decry dirty tricks and underhanded campaign tactics. Yet, the U.S. has a vibrant history of just that sort of thing. It’s as traditional as mom and apple pie.

But, where did the notion of applying some underhanded tactics in a public election come from? Is this a recent phenomenon or can we go back in time to see some of the same things we complain about today occurring in the early days of the republic.

In his book, Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises, [1] Joseph Cummins details how the idea of dirty tricks goes all the way back to George Washington’s time when it was quite acceptable to grab as many voters as you could, ply people with alcohol and encourage them to vote “the right way” (meaning for your candidate or your side of an issue).

The race to succeed Washington also brought the boosters for both sides to new lows – at least lows in the context of the period. For example, calling Thomas Jefferson someone with “atheistic” tendencies and a lover of the French revolution was akin to calling Jefferson godless and bloodthirsty. Even calling him a “philosopher” and “visionary” – epithets that might be seen as a compliment today – were meant as negatives in Jefferson’s time.

But, other than name calling, the idea of planned political election tricks really came to the fore in the in the mid-1800s. According to Richard Shenkman [2], the presidential election of James Polk was preceded with an election campaign that really got down and dirty. In 1844 one of Polk’s opponent’s supporters put out a newspaper story that intimated that Polk’s slaves (when owning slaves was still accepted policy) had been branded with Polk’s initials. That, claimed his opponents, was proof that Polk had sold slaves in order to raise campaign cash. The only problem with the allegation was – it wasn’t true.

Davy Crockett and Abe Lincoln

Davy Crockett

Also in the 19th century, Martin Van Buren was accused of wearing women’s corsets  - and who was his accuser? None other than the famous frontiersman Davy Crockett - seen at right -  (the Disney television shows must have given Davy a less ornery persona). Even Abraham Lincoln fell victim to campaign trickery when he was accused of having “stinky feet,” which we can only assume was a big thing, politically speaking, in Lincoln’s time.

Trickery only got worse in the years to come. After the Civil War, in the election of 1880, a letter was published, purporting to be from presidential candidate James Garfield, on a labor and immigration issue that was sure to lose Garfield some votes. Again, the document was falsified and Garfield had made no such statement at all.

While all the dirty tricks up to then had not had a serious effect on the outcome of an election, that all changed in 1888. That’s when democrat Grover Cleveland ran for re-election to the presidency and was opposed by republican Benjamin Harrison. In a campaign that was historical in terms of the number of tricks played by both sides, the big dirty trick in the entire episode came when two weeks before the election the Republicans in Congress released a letter supposedly from the British Ambassador to a British ex-patriot living in the U.S. asking the ambassador which U.S. presidential candidate he should vote for. As it turned out, the letter was a hoax – written by a California republican.

In the modern era, two presidential campaigns stand out for the degree of political trickery involved.

Johnson Versus Goldwater

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson faced off against Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. To defeat Goldwater, Johnson’s campaign specialists created a top-secret after-hours group known as the “anti-campaign” and “the five o’clock club.” Among the anti-Goldwater campaign tactics they employed was publishing a Goldwater joke book entitled You Can Die Laughing. They even created a children’s coloring book, in which kids could color pictures of Goldwater dressed in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. They even sent CIA agent E. Howard Hunt (who became famous later on as part of the Watergate scandal during the Nixon presidency) to infiltrate Goldwater campaign headquarters, posing as a volunteer and where he purloined advance copies of Goldwater speeches and fed them to the White House.

Tuck and Nixon

Dick Tuck
Dick Tuck

Perhaps one of the most famous of political tricksters – and the lifelong nemesis of Richard Nixon – was Dick Tuck [3]. There’s even a Dick Tuck website still active which recalls and touts Tuck’s famous, or infamous, tricks that had Nixon the butt of his pranks.

Richard Nixon

Dick Tuck was a political consultant, writer and campaign strategist. He had worked on a number of democratic candidates over the years (such as Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and others). For many years he worked for the National Lampoon. It was his political pedigree in California that had Tuck follow Nixon as the latter moved onto the national scene and caused Nixon no end of concern about what Tuck might be up to next.

Richard Nixon

Among Tuck’s most famous anti-Nixon stunts was during one of Nixon’s California gubernatorial campaigns. During one campaign stop, Tuck arranged for the train Nixon was speaking from to start leaving the station while Nixon was still talking.

Yet another Tuck trick happened at a stop in Los Angeles' Chinatown. There some "Welcome Nixon" signs were interspersed with signs in Chinese that charged Nixon with various misdeeds – all courtesy of Dick Tuck.

Tuck’s tricks had Nixon thinking every bizarre thing that happened was initiated by Tuck. Even the Watergate scandal had its roots in Dick Tuck’s activities to a degree. Though Tuck was not involved in Watergate, the secret White House recordings that revealed the origins of the scandal had Nixon telling his associates, "Dick Tuck did that to me. Let's get out what Dick Tuck did!"

Dirty tricks and political campaigns are not new. They have been around as long as there have been politicians, national leaders, and huge egos. It can be expected that future campaigns will have no less a dirty trick aspect to them.



[1] Cummins, Joseph. Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2007.

[2] Shenkman, Richard. Presidential Ambition: Gaining Power At Any Cost. HarperCollins. 2000

[3] www.dicktuck.com





May 25, 2012 4:35pm
Great article, Noah. Good thing the US is still considered a young country. I'm thinking of the Romans, and even farther back to biblical times. Seems politics have always been corrupt. Thumbs up.
Jun 15, 2012 7:50am
These tricks might be dirty, but some of them are ingenious. Thank you for a very informative article.
Nov 11, 2012 7:28am
As a history buff Iloved this article--it's both clever and smart!
As for dirty plays I don't think there has een a president called more names and accused of more dirt than Obama in this last election--For a year I think I must have gotten at least an email a day "warning me" against the "evils" of the president. The hate mail and racism clad in political idiologies changed my course after voting only one party for 50 years. I thought there must be something right with any politician that causes that kind of hate mail. 2 BIG stars from me!
Nov 11, 2013 1:44pm
For all the things I've learned about Richard Nixon, I had never heard of Dick Tuck until I read this. Thank you for teaching me something new. What would the people who tried to make a smear campaign out of Abraham Lincoln's "stinky feet" think of politics today?
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