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'Don't Know Much About the American Presidents': Kenneth C. Davis reveals strange facts about America's leaders

George Washington breaking the law? The president with the most corrupt presidential administration in American history? Writer Kenneth C. Davis discusses surprising facts about our past leaders.

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What you can see right away in 1796, the first contested election, is that as soon as parties form, the knives come out. And they were sharp and they were very deep in people’s backs. This notion that somehow the good old days were gentlemen who debated fine points and there was none of this mudslinging is simply a myth, one of the many myths that we have about American history.

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In 1796, John Adams was being assailed in the newspaper as an overweight monarchist. He was publicly accused of sending a vice presidential candidate – although they weren’t specifically called vice presidential candidates at the time – his running mate was sent to procure four young mistresses for the two of them. Adams had the good humor to say he didn’t know what the general who had gone to do this had done with his two, but he never saw them. But you also had around this time Thomas Jefferson being called a deviant, a Jacobin – which at that time meant a left-wing terrorist – and, worse, a coward. This was the Swift-boating of its day.

From the scandalmonger days of Jefferson to Grover Cleveland enduring the jeers of “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?,” it seems clear that this kind of fighting comes with the territory. Would you agree?

It’s human nature to strike back, and sometimes you strike back in the most vicious, partisan [manner] and finding scandal is a way to do it. Jefferson’s relationship with a slave is revealed [during Jefferson’s presidential tenure] by a journalist who is angry because he didn’t get a job [as a postmaster through presidential appointment]. His revenge was as a muckraker [against Jefferson], but that is part of the political game in this country.

It does us no service to pretend that somehow it was so much better. The element of money in the campaign has always been an issue, as well. Certainly by the late 19th century, a tremendous amount of money [was being spent], and there were no federal election laws at the time. Money and politics have always gone hand in hand. Theodore Roosevelt was talking about how dangerous it was that men of great wealth were influencing and corrupting the political process. That’s 100 years ago.

It didn’t start with Citizens United [the 2010 Supreme Court decision that lifted independent spending restrictions on corporation and other interest groups in campaigns] and it certainly didn’t start with Richard Nixon and slush fund, which was the real reason for the Watergate crisis and the beginning of a Federal Election Commission and the beginning of controls on campaign spending, many of which have been thrown out by Citizens United.

It seems as through Presidents Grant and Eisenhower are enjoying favorable reassessments for their presidencies of late. Why do you think that is?

That’s a good question, because I certainly would probably have to classify myself in that category of giving slightly better marks to both men than they have had in the last 20 or 30 years.

Of course, Grant was roundly criticized, and rightfully so, for the corruption in his administration. It was not that he was personally dishonest in any respect. He was more naïve than dishonest. That in its own way is a problem. Grant is enjoying [more praise] because he was trying to bring a shattered nation back together, especially after the incompetence of Andrew Johnson. Grant also had a very progressive attitude toward African-Americans and bringing them into the political process.

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