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By Jay Cost

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Politics or Paddycake?

Question: In politics, what's the difference between a vicious smear attack and a tough but fair ad?

Answer: Depends on whose side you're on!

Vicious smear, or tough but fair?

Vicious smear, or tough but fair?

Some might say both are vicious smears. They'd follow up that high-minded conclusion with complaints about how this diminishes the debate and the American people deserve better and blah blah blah.

Please.

Let's put this nasty, mean-spirited, dishonest, cruel, wicked, grim election of 2008 in context.

The year is 1796. The first contested presidential election in American history pits two authors of the Declaration of Independence against one another. So, it must have been a restrained, erudite discussion about the future of the young Republic. Right?

No way!

Writes historian Paul Boller:

The first real presidential contest in American history turned out to be exuberantly venomous. On both sides handbills, pamphlets, and articles in party newspapers denounced, disparaged, damned, decried, denigrated, and declaimed. There were plenty of issues. For the Federalists there was Jefferson's sympathy for the French Revolution despite the guillotine and the Terror; and there was also his religious heterodoxy. The Republicans had Adams's lack of faith in the people to harp on as well as his preference for high-toned government...

Adams and Jefferson themselves remained on good terms during their contest and neither deigned to take an active part in it. But their followers throughout the land filled the air with charges and counter-charges.

That's right. The campaign of the partisan papers (the original 527s!) was exuberantly venomous.

I can just imagine the television advertisements.

France. Tens of thousands brutally executed in what the Times calls the Reign of Terror.

Jefferson's response? Celebration. He says he'd rather see "half the earth desolated" than watch those fanatical tyrants fail.

Half the earth desolated?

Jefferson. Radical. Dangerous. Wrong.

"I'm John Adams and I approved this message."

The entrance query - vicious smear or tough but fair? - was actually a trick question. There really is no such thing as "fair" in American politics - at least not in the sense that we typically mean it. Fair is simply what you can get away with. Always has been.

Final point. By the end of their days, Adams and Jefferson were once again best buds. That's a lesson to all of us not to take this stuff so seriously.

-Jay Cost