How Honest is ‘Honest Abe’?

A man’s voice, urgent:

“America is in crisis. It feels like we’re coming apart.”

Shots from a hand-held camera—blurry, indistinct. Angry citizens, protests. Closeup on a bearded young man, his face distorted by rage.

“We face unprecedented challenges.”

Cuts of lonely farms, small houses with for-sale signs. A little girl with pleading eyes.

“Is this any time for inexperience?”

A tattered flag blows in the wind.

“One candidate has silky words, but what do they mean? What do we really know of him?”

Video shot from behind a candidate who stands at a podium. We see his back, the jerky movement of his arms. We see faces in the crowd—confused, shaking their heads. Are they being gulled?

“His backwoods chatter can’t hide the facts. He’s never had a college education—or any education at all. He claims he read the classics at night, by candlelight. But that’s not really what the frontier was about.”

Cut to a raucous bonfire—frantic dancing, men and women, drinking. A hysterical laugh pierces the outer darkness.

“He says he’s for the little guy. Why is he hiding the fact that he’s a big-time lawyer who sold himself to the highest bidder?”

Archival film shot: a saloon table, a wad of bills gathered up by a fat man’s hand. Gleaming cuffs, cufflinks, ruby ring. In the background, a woman’s chuckle. Somehow we know her name is Belle.

“He served just one term in the House—one. And wasn’t reelected.”

Blurry photo of a man. We’re not sure who it is. Slowly it begins to come into focus—stark face, rude cheekbones, slick black hair. Now cut to close-up: his irregular eyes. One pupil is more dilated than the other. He’s cockeyed.

“He ran for the Senate, and failed.”

Video of torches being extinguished. A slump-shouldered voter walks away, alone.

“They said they loved his speeches, but what were they beyond words? His wife? Imperious. His address? Impeccable. As for the family he came from, he left them in the backwoods when he went to the big city.”

Shot of sad, impoverished family in an empty field.

Then quick shots: An honest American worker in front of a toolshed. Yearning families on farms and in cities. A little girl holding a flag, which droops wanly on her shoulder.

“This is a time of crisis—and he’s telling jokes.”

Screen goes black.

“They call him ‘Honest Abe.’ But he’s just another Springfield insider.”

Another man’s voice:

“I’m Stephen A. Douglas, and I approved this message.”


So that’s my Abe Lincoln attack ad. It can claim to be factual, or at least arguable, and the parts that are too mean would ensure it got plenty of free play on “Hardball,” “Special Report” and “Morning Joe,” where we’d all deplore it. Then the Douglas campaign would pull it after complaining they have no control over their stupid, independent Super PAC, Americans for Sort of More Slavery at Least for a While.

I wish someone would make this ad and show it across the country and say at the end: “Cheer up, have faith, greatness is possible, sometimes it’s there but you only see it in retrospect. Not everyone’s a bum.”

Attack ads are the dreck of democracy. There are too many of them and there will be more. In the next 8½ months we will be engulfed. The Republican presidential primary is in full swing so we’ve already seen Bain Capital Took Your Job and Newt Is a Hypocritical Big Government Hack. Senate and House candidates will launch this spring and summer, so it’s going to get a lot more negative.

Why are attacks ads bad? Because at the end of the day they are damaging to our country and its processes, and they are most damaging to the degree their messages enter our children’s heads.

Someone once said that if you want to know the source of a person’s political views, go back to the newspaper headlines when he was 20. See what the country was talking about, and how it was talking about it, when he first started thinking of himself as a citizen, a stakeholder, a member of America.

But imagine you are today 8 or 10 or 12. You watch TV, you hear the radio in the car, you go on the computer, you see the ads. They inundate you. And they make, in the aggregate, an indelible impression: “They are all bad.” If your child is a happy little psychopath, he will be encouraged: “Good, I’ll fit right in when I grow up.” But assuming your children are not psychopaths, and in spite of their daily behavior that tends to be true, they will be discouraged. They would never want to take part in public life some day. They would never even want to pay attention to it. Because they want to grow up and be admirable.

We are poisoning their minds. I used to say liberalism was more damaged by this because liberals are inclined to think the answer to public ills resides in governmental action. Negative ads imply the people who run government are bad, so government must be too. Why trust it? But conservatism is undercut just as much, certainly now, because to make the changes they want, they need big numbers, big margins. Numbers come from passion. Passion is diminished by sourness, by “they’re all bums.”

Many say our politics are no more negative than they used to be, and they have a point: It’s always been a brute sport. We all know the drill, from “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” to the presidential election of 1800. Thomas Jefferson had one of his henchmen—excuse me, surrogates—accuse John Adams, in a series of newspaper essays, of being a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” a “strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness,” a “repulsive pedant.” That’s worse than what Mitt said about Newt. By the end, Adams was so beside himself he lost his temper and called Alexander Hamilton “a man devoid of every moral principle, a bastard . . . a foreigner.” That’s worse than what Newt said about Mitt.

The man in front of whom Adams lost his temper made sure to get the word out, through letters, the press, and word of mouth. And that of course is what’s different now. They didn’t have mass media to blanket everyone’s minds. You used to have to be sort of sophisticated to know Alexander Hamilton hated Adams. You had to read long newspaper accounts to find out why, and you had to go to the city to find the newspapers. You could find it if you wanted to, but if you didn’t, there was less chance it would find you.

And now there’s no place to hide. All screens are on.

What remedies might ease this situation will have no impact on 2012. What about self-policing?

You there, political consultant, genius ad cutter, sitting at your laptop reviewing the images and the script. Are you making a brutal ad to take the enemy down? Are you thinking of anything but your status as an effective guru and your pay? Are you thinking at all of the net effects of your dark work?

No? Then a curse upon you as you hit “save” and “send.” May your hand be palsied. May it lose its power.