Obama and Clinton certainly weren’t sinless when they squared off during the 2008 Democratic primary. He said, “She’ll say anything and change nothing.” She said he was an empty suit full of speeches that “don’t put food on the table. Speeches don’t fill up your tank, or fill your prescription, or do anything about that stack of bills that keeps you up at night.”
Those barbs aren’t as sharp as Trump’s attacks. None are as sharp, or as clever, as what came earlier in the era before Twitter.
Former President Lyndon Johnson insinuated that then-House Minority Leader Gerald Ford was mentally retarded. “He’s a nice guy,” Johnson said of Ford, who played linebacker in college for the University of Michigan, “but he played too much football with his helmet off.”
Then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt thought up what must have been a dandy of an insult for former President William McKinley, saying he had “no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.”
An especially violent former President Andrew Jackson said he had “only two regrets: I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” That second man, it should be noted, had served as Jackson’s vice president.
These are sticks and stones that we remember, and maybe even laugh at, in our history books. Whenever a commentator mentions the “unprecedented divisiveness” of the Trump presidency or some other unqualified superlative, though, it is worth actually detailing the very real political violence of the past.
Politicians killed each other in duels. One member of the House beat a senator’s brains out with a cane on the floor of the Senate. Politicians pulled apart the country and started a civil war. Politicians named John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan were shot by assassins. None of this happened as long ago as we would like to think.