Trump vs. Cruz and the Sordid History of Smears in American Politics

From Jonathan Goodman:

The national news media would have you believe this is the worst political bashing of candidates’ wives in the history of American politics. But that simply isn’t the case. I took a look at past campaigns throughout this nation’s history and what I found may shock you.

In the last 96 years since women won the right to vote, each presidential candidate’s wife has had to learn the trials of being visibly active on the campaign trail. It has never been an easy role to fill, as a public figure caught between society’s conflicting notions of what a potential president’s wife and her role in the white house should be.

Smearing of presidential candidates’ wives is almost as old as America itself. In fact the first documented bashing starts with Dolly Madison in 1808. Federalist candidate Charles C. Pinckney circulated the rumor that James Madison made his wife sexually available to Thomas Jefferson in order to gain his endorsement, essentially making her a political whore. It didn’t stop there. She was also bashed for her lavish spending and comments were made about the size of her breasts during the campaign.

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The election of 1828 will go down in history as among the ugliest mudslinging that focused on a candidate’s family. Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachel became the center of controversy when it was learned she hadn’t officially been divorced from her first husband when she married Jackson in 1791. For this she faced daily assaults in newspapers supportive of the rival party, accused of bigamy and ridiculed for being fat and uneducated. The assaults took a terrible toll on her and she died of heart failure soon after the election and just before Jackson was sworn into office. Jackson’s mother was also in the crosshairs of incumbent John Quincy Adams, who called her a common prostitute brought to the country by British soldiers.

Candidate Wife BashingThings didn’t get much better by 1886 when Frances Cleveland, married to then president Grover Cleveland, had to issue an unprecedented public denial due to vicious rumors that she was cheating on him and that he beat her. This marked the first time in history a president’s wife had to publicly address rumors of her private life.

Ten years later, in 1896, opponents of William McKinley had a smear campaign against his wife, claiming she was mentally ill and confined to an institution. Sadly, Ida McKinley actually had epilepsy and during fits in public William would drape a handkerchief over her head to conceal the seizure and calm her down. In order to quell the rumors, the campaign issued a biography of Ida that said she suffered from a nervous condition.

Personal attacks like these continued into modern day with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s wife Mamie slandered for appearing to always be drunk a condition that was misinterpreted due to her inner ear problem.

Betty Ford’s substance abuse was fodder for President Gerald Ford’s rivals, and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s second wife Happy Rockefeller was accused of adultery due to an immediate marriage to one another after both divorced their first spouses.

Kitty Dukakis, the wife of democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, was practically destroyed during her husband’s bid for the white house. She was accused of taking part in radical activities, including flag burning and being an alcoholic. The second of which was true and revealed in her memoir where she also stated she’d undergone electroconvulsive therapy in order to treat major depression due to her husband’s defeat in the campaign for the white house.

Even Cindy McCain, the wife of John McCain, was the target of a smear campaign that painted her as an addict. George W. Bush’s team invented a rumor that McCain’s adopted daughter was in fact his illegitimate black child out of wedlock. This lie sold incredibly well during the South Carolina primary to which McCain lost to Bush.

So when you see the mainstream media saying this is the worst candidate wife bashing they’ve ever seen, just know that’s meant to evoke an emotional response in you. The only difference between this year’s attacks and previous elections is that they are now being amplified across social media and by comparison to some of history’s more notorious mudslinging, this season actually pales by comparison.

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by

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