During the 1880s, American politics witnessed the birth of its newest and most powerful player—journalistic sensationalism. And with it, presidential elections entered a whole new era of toxicity.
Its first victims were Grover Cleveland and James Blaine, who squared off during the 1884 election. The Blaine campaign was probably best known for its slogan "Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa?" which played off accusations that Cleveland had an illicit affair that produced a child. Blaine's Republican supporters latched onto the phrase quickly, chanting it in the streets as they rallied around their candidate. But the media latched onto it, too—this time with a newly invested interest in wringing out every drop of drama. In 1883, Joseph Pulitzer purchased New York World and upped the ante on selling stories. His emphasis on human-interest pieces and juicy scandals had newspapers flying off the racks, and other papers scurried to deliver the same. As long as people were buying them, nobody seemed to bother with the facts.
But James Blaine had his own ethical problems to worry about. Also known as "Slippery Jim," Blaine had a political closet packed with skeletons. As Speaker of the House, for instance, he'd pushed through legislation that benefited railroad contractors, who then rewarded him with company stock. He and his associates tried to cover up the tracks, but old letters surfaced that detailed the full transactions. On one of the correspondences, Blaine had written "burn this letter!" Apparently, that didn't happen—and Pulitzer and his competitors had a field day with the evidence.
Days before the election, Blaine arrived at the Fifth Avenue Hotel to find a large crowd of supporters. But before he could even give his speech, his campaign was derailed by the person introducing him, Rev. Samuel Burchard. Unfortunately for Blaine, Burchard's speech was never vetted, and the reverend closed his remarks with this gem: "We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion." In one fell swoop, he essentially called hundreds of thousands of Irish supporters drunken, Catholic traitors. The term "Burchardized" quickly entered the political lexicon, and to this day it's a phenomenon campaign managers have nightmares about. To Blaine's discredit, however, he didn't play the situation correctly. In an age of new media,
rather than trying to distance himself from the remarks or saying something to correct the record, Blaine ignored it—and paid the price. In the end, New York's electoral votes went to Cleveland, and so did the election. In their victory parade, Cleveland's men answered the taunt "Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa?" with a line of their own: "Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!"
This article was written by Kerwin Swint and appears in the September-October issue of mental_floss magazine. For more negative campaign fun, check out Mr. Swint's book, Mudslingers: The Top 25 Negative Political Campaigns of All Time.