In April 1864, months before one of the most contentious elections in American history, the New York World accused President Abraham Lincoln of having urged a friend to sing a comic song as they strolled among the dead and wounded two years earlier at Antietam.
The World pounded on the false story for five months, eventually adding the fanciful detail that Democratic opponent George McClellan, the general Lincoln had fired for timidity and a fatal case of the “slows,” had pleaded in vain for Lincoln to show respect to the fallen.
Lincoln declined to respond to the attacks, hoping his character would speak for itself. “In politics, every man must skin his own skunk,” he told his friend. “These fellows are welcome to the hide of this one. Its body has already given forth its unsavory odor.”
From the distance of 150 years, it’s easy to see how ridiculous the World’s story was in an election year that was wracked by Civil War, blood-soaked battlefields, draft riots and accusations from both parties that the president was insufficiently racist. But in the heat of a campaign, it isn’t always easy to tell which spats might really matter. Here’s a quick guide to the latest crop:
♦ President Obama goes to a baseball game in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Brussels: doesn’t matter. The attack on Brussels happened on March 22. Three days before, terrorists set off a bomb in Turkey. Five days later, terrorists set off a bomb in Pakistan.
Going to baseball games has been part of the president’s job since William Howard Taft threw out the first pitch at a Washington Senators game in 1910. If we want a president instead of a Mourner in Chief, we can’t have the man knocking off work every time a bomb goes off.
♦ Donald Trump insults Ted Cruz’s wife: Matters. First lady pulchritude is hardly a pressing national issue, but come on. If you were interviewing two people to run a hamburger joint and learned that one of them had tweeted what Trump did about the other’s wife, you would never hire him. Never. How can we elect a president whom we can’t trust to supervise hamburger flippers?
♦ Accusations of racism over state Sen. Jennifer Fielder’s speech last year to the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance: don’t matter. You don’t have to like CERA or Fielder’s stance on state control of federal lands to defend her right to make whatever speeches she wishes without having to check the racial attitudes of the audience.
Remember what Jesus said when he was criticized for eating and drinking with sinners: I didn’t come to save the righteous; I came to save the sinners.
While we are at it, let’s dismiss in advance all of the claims we will hear of politicians demanding that other politicians return or reject campaign funds from unworthy donors. It wasn’t Lincoln or Jesus, but another great American, Jesse Unruh, former speaker of the California State Assembly, who said, “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, and vote against them, you don’t belong here.”
Honest politicians should relieve the corrupt and dishonest of money whenever possible, and then use every penny of it to fight corruption and dishonesty.
♦ U.S. Sen. Steve Daines refuses a hearing for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee: matters. Republicans argue that although the Constitution requires them to give their advice and consent to nominees, it doesn’t say when. That’s true, but as Sen. Al Franken pointed out, the Constitution doesn’t require senators to show up for work either. But that’s their job, and if they don’t want to do their job, they should resign.
♦ Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte donates millions to conservative causes: hard to say. People should be able to donate money as they wish, but Gianforte has been awfully coy about the extent to which he would let his donations drive his political agenda.
If Gianforte wants to donate $290,000 to support creationism, as the Billings Gazette reported this week, that’s his business. But if he harbors hidden plans to put creationism into science classes, that’s everybody’s business.
He also has donated money to anti-abortion groups, school choice groups and to groups that argue for prayers in public schools. All are matters of potentially intense public interest.
In interviews, Gianforte has shown himself to be adept at dodging questions he would prefer not to answer—a useful skill in any politician. When a caller to a Montana radio show asked him recently whether Canadian-born Ted Cruz should be eligible to be president, Gianforte ducked the question so deftly that perhaps not even the caller noticed.
But the closer the election gets, the less politically savvy the dodges become. If he wants to be taken seriously in November, he had better start talking.
♦ Violence at Trump rallies: Doesn’t matter. Lincoln saw much worse, and nobody cares about those protests now. Sometimes, people just have to skin their skunks.