Doug Wead is a presidential historian who served as senior advisor to the Ron Paul presidential campaign in 2012, and was special assistant to President George H.W. Bush.
In 1988 I received a call from my boss Lee Atwater. He was the George H.W. Bush campaign manager and he had a strange request. “Hey Wead,” Atwater said, “Get the word out. Kitty Dukakis has the clap.”
Kitty Dukakis was the wife of our Democrat opponent, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. She did not have a venereal disease. Spreading the rumor was an Atwater device to force her husband to release his medical records.
It’s an old story that is now told in history books and Atwater made a deathbed apology to the Dukakis family but it came to mind when I saw the Cruz-Trump feud flare out into the open last week. Notwithstanding the television pundits who tell you that this is a new low, attacks on the opponent’s wife and children in the middle of a political campaign are nothing new.
Here’s how the Cruz-Trump feud unfolded.
On March 8, 2016, a Ted Cruz surrogate appeared on the Neil Cavuto Show on the Fox News Channel and took a verbal swing at Melania Trump, wife of Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. This was the first blow. If anyone knows of anything earlier, please speak up.
“If she becomes the first lady,” the television guest told Cavuto’s audience, “she will be the first one to have posed in the nude, the first one to have been her husband’s third wife and the first one to have been born outside of the United States in 100 years.” Cavuto seemed embarrassed and unimpressed by the comment and quickly passed on to another topic. Surely, Melanie Trump, is not responsible for her husband’s prior marriages.
A week later came the hit from the Super PAC. The organization Make America Awesome, founded by Liz Mair began circulating a saucy picture of Melania Trump to Mormon voters on Facebook in Utah. The organization made no effort to hide its pro Cruz stance. By Monday the activity was picked up by Buzzfeed.
For a time, Donald Trump was uncharacteristically calm. On March 22, the Ted Cruz strategy clearly worked. He won the Utah Caucus with 69% of the vote. Trump who polled just 14% won no delegates.
On March 23, Donald Trump answered back with his own tweet telling Cruz to leave his wife alone or he would “spill the beans on Heidi Cruz.”
Ignoring the earlier taunts by Ted Cruz, the national media came down hard on Donald Trump. Cruz was portrayed as an innocent victim standing up for his wife.
Cruz explained that he could not control an independent PAC and the national media seemed to agree. In fact, while it is illegal for candidates to “coordinate” with independent PAC’s this does not mean that they cannot disavow what they are doing. They can also stop them from using a candidate’s name.
Donald Trump, for example, has sent numerous “cease and desist” letters to shut down Super Pac’s using his name and running negative ads against his rivals. Cruz could have easily done the same.
This “war of the wives” is nothing new in American politics. Wives and children have often been the targets.
In 1828 the Whigs attacked Andrew Jackson’s wife, calling her a bigamist and an adulterer.
Rachel Jackson was a devout Presbyterian who had been kept away from the vicious campaign. After her husband won the election she traveled to Nashville to buy a dress for the inaugural ball. There she found stacks of old newspapers recounting the campaign accusations.
Rachel became ill and was ordered to bed on December 18. She died a few days later and was buried on Christmas Day.
Andrew Jackson looked at her miniature and read from her Bible each evening for the rest of his life.
Many years later, Andrew Jackson’s network of newspapers took revenge. They attacked William Henry Harrison’s family. Harrison was a popular Whig candidate for president.
The attacks were savage. One of his children was falsely accused of embezzlement. Harrison would bury three of his adult sons in the three consecutive years leading up to his election as president. His wife would be in such grief that she would never set foot in the Washington, D.C.
Harrison would travel back East with some of his widowed daughter-in-law’s and grandchildren to try to make a new life in the White House.
Historians make fun of him for giving a long speech, without a hat, in the freezing weather at his inauguration. Survivor’s guilt? He died thirty days later. His family, abandoned and destitute, made their sad trek back to Indiana and Kentucky where they lived out their lives in poverty.
When you hear the next pundit telling you that politics is meaner today than ever before? Don’t believe it. Today’s Cruz-Trump battle with its “war of the wives” is only another chapter in an old story.
Doug Wead also has his own personal blog, where you can read more of his posts.