Looking for some lighter reading fare and pairing it with a buddy read, this book seemed the perfect mix. Joseph Cummins has compiled this wonderfully educational and entertaining piece that seeks to examine each of the presidential elections in US history (up to 2008, around the time of publication). By exploring these elections, Cummins seeks to determine just how dirty and ruthless the campaigns turned out to be. His hypothesis: campaigns have long been dirty affairs and while the sleaze factor may change, mud-slinging and backstabbing has always been an active part of the election cycle. While George Washington seemed fairly free of any attacks by his foes, the whirlwind of issues started soon thereafter. Cummins shows that early elections utilized a more “blatant” approach to attacks on candidates: mocking men for being drunkards, philanderers, and willing to buy votes. All forms of publication were blunt in their approach, vilifying anyone who opposed the writer’s perspective. As the years progressed, there were times that actual political issues served to tar and feather presidential candidates, but the move turned to personal mockery, where the weight of one’s wife or the genealogy of a certain child became active fodder. Cummins shows that candidates had to defend their honour or toss exponentially more mud to deflect some of these accusations. Personal foibles and missteps seemed to be more the 20th century approach to campaign attacks, turning to more subtle advertisements that treated the electorate as an intelligent being, filling the airwaves and printed leaflets with nuanced references. Perhaps it was the more litigious nature of America, but the straightforward “Candidate X has a fat wife!” was no longer permitted, leaving parties to spin stories and sometimes ride out complete fabrications. In an era when candidates could not always dodge the accusations, Cummins shows just how forgiving the voter could be, or how well the spin factor worked when the Democrats and Republicans were working at their hardest. A wonderful compilation of short vignettes related to each presidential election, sandwiching history and political context between the actual candidates and final vote count. Wonderful for history and political buffs looking for something light to digest.
Cummins does a fabulous job in this collection, which came to fruition because he saw much mud-slinging and so many attack ads coming out of Bush-Kerry in 2004. What came to print was a great primer for the curious reader, allowing the development of the basics of a scandalous campaign approach. With the additional layers of history and some of the key issues found between the presidential candidates permitted this foundational piece to hold its own. This is sure to fuel a fire for any reader who wants to know more, though some of the information found herein is more or less ‘general knowledge’. It is when the reader gets to some of the more obscure presidents (and I say this, knowing full well my Canadian education would make far more of these men obscure than my American counterparts) that Cummins offers some humorous anecdotes that may have the reader rushing to Wikipedia or the library to substantiate these comments. Most electoral campaigns are summarised in 5-10 brief pages, though there are others that seem less controversial and can be tied off in under four. Cummins also adds his own “sleaze-o-meter”, allowing the reader to better understand how scandalous things turned out to be. Light and surely entertaining, the reader can learn a great deal. Perhaps its only downside (surely not Cummins’ fault) is that the 2016 campaign could not be included. Wouldn’t reading all about the backstabbing and bribery and cheating be tweet… I mean, sweet!
Kudos, Mr. Cummins for this wonderful collection. I will check to see if you have other presidential pieces out there to entertain me between deeper books.