American history is riddled with national political candidates who made puzzling mistakes. Some recovered, while others didn’t. Here’s a look back, from the days of Hamilton and Burr, to the current Todd Akin controversy.
And as with most Constitution Daily articles that discuss the Founding Fathers, there’s usually a link to Alexander Hamilton or Aaron Burr.
Hamilton was the Founding Father who seemed to be at the center of everything political, but he never ran for national elected office. One big reason that Hamilton was blocked from a presidential campaign was his public acknowledgement of an extramarital affair in 1797.
By 1804, Burr was the vice president of the United States. But it wasn’t Burr’s best year. He angered President Thomas Jefferson to the point that he was dropped from the re-election campaign, and then Burr failed in a bid to become New York’s governor, thanks to that pesky Alexander Hamilton.
Burr took matters into his own hands by killing Hamilton in a duel, which also killed Burr's political career. The vice president was charged with murder but never tried.
Burr would have been a presidential candidate again, if it wasn’t for the duel and some later treason charges.
How modern mudslinging began
But it took the bitter 1884 election to bring campaign mistakes into the modern era.
The election was an especially nasty campaign, but it didn’t keep Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland down.
Cleveland looked doomed after he admitted making payments to support a child born out of wedlock (although he never said the child was his). Instead, he told the truth and didn’t avoid the issue.
Newspapers had a field day with the cartoons and slogans about Cleveland’s alleged love child.
Opponent James Blaine seemed headed to victory when he made a bigger mistake at the last second by supporting a Protestant minister who insulted Irish and Catholic voters. Blaine didn’t refute the claims, which caused a media firestorm just one week before the election.
Cleveland won the 1884 election, after Blaine couldn’t contain his mistake in the press. But now the gloves were off in national elections, with the media as an active player in the personal lives of politicians.
The Teapot Dome scandal and Checkers
Had President Warren Harding lived to run for a second term, the Republican from Ohio would have faced the brunt of the massive Teapot Dome bribery scandal.
Six members of Harding’s administration faced charges and did jail time for taking bribes for leasing federal oil reserves to private companies, selling patents and taking bootlegging kickbacks.
Harding was elected in 1920 and was a different kind of president, who served bootleg whiskey openly in the White House. He also had every intention of running for re-election in 1924.
Harding escaped the scandal as an election issue when he died in San Francisco in 1923 while on a speaking tour. No autopsy was performed on his body. Many parts of the Teapot Dome scandal emerged after his death.
In 1952, GOP vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon was dogged by charges he used a slush fund to finance campaign re-election activities.
Nixon faced a public firing from the Republican ticket by presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower.
In a stroke of political genius, Nixon went on national television to explain his family finances, and then said the only gift he wouldn’t return was Checkers, the family dog.
The move saved Nixon’s political career, and he became vice president.
But 17 years later, Ted Kennedy couldn’t salvage his future presidential aspirations with a nationally televised statement to explain the Chappaquiddick Island incident.
In 1969, Kennedy drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, killing passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. He also delayed reporting the incident.
Kennedy offered an apology on national television and won re-election in 1970 to the Senate.
While Kennedy served in the Senate until his death in 2009, for 47 years, the Chappaquiddick incident served as a barrier to Kennedy’s presidential ambitions and directly affected a 1980 primary campaign against Jimmy Carter.
Watergate and other monkey business
Two other campaign mistakes in the following two decades ended one presidency after it started, and finished the campaign of a frontrunner before it began.
Members of incumbent President Richard M. Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in 1972, in what started a two-year national ordeal over the Watergate affair.
Nixon easily won the 1972 election against George McGovern, but Watergate exploded shortly after Nixon was sworn in for a second term.
By August 1974, Nixon resigned from office after a Supreme Court decision forced the release of incriminating tapes.
And April 1987, Gary Hart started his campaign early for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination as the widely accepted frontrunner.
In an arrogant moment, Hart dared the press to prove there was any “monkey business” in his personal life.
Unknown to Hart, newspapers had been investigating him, and a Miami newspaper responded immediately with a story about an affair, within one day. Several days later, the National Enquirer showed Hart in the company of model Donna Rice on a yacht called the Monkey Business.
The incident ended Hart’s presidential hopes and started another era in how the press covered politicians’ personal lives.
Modern miscues, the media and the "macaca" incident
In recent years, the media’s nonstop coverage of campaign mistakes, often fueled by partisanship, seems to be a regular occurrence.
Back in 1988, Democratic primary candidate Joe Biden dropped his campaign after another opponent, Michael Dukakis, released video of Biden giving campaign speeches that used quotes from a British politician.
Another widely publicize campaign gaffe was Howard Dean’s over-the-top Iowa primary concession speech in early 2004. Dean’s screaming rant was played repeatedly on television and websites (before YouTube hit the scene in 2005).
In 2006, Virginia U.S. Senate candidate George Allen was seen as a potential GOP presidential contender, until he used two alleged racial slurs to describe an Indian-American Democratic campaign tracker during an appearance.
Video of the “macaca” incident severely damaged Allen’s 2006 campaign, which he lost.
The saga of former vice presidential nominee John Edwards was also well-documented by the National Enquirer in 2007, when Edwards was starting to run in the Democratic primaries. He later dropped out of the campaign and confirmed the Enquirer’s reports about an extramarital affair and child.
And in 2010, Delaware U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell was left defending her past comments from an HBO political talk show when she admitted dabbling in witchcraft. Her TV political ad response, which started with the quote, “I am not a witch,” was seen as a bigger gaffe.
The current controversy over Todd Akin, the embattled GOP Senate candidate from Missouri, is unusual in that Akin has decided to campaign without the support of the Republican party.
The party has disavowed Akin’s comments about rape, made to a St. Louis TV station. Akin has apologized and is openly challenging the GOP’s refusal to support his campaign.
As we’ve seen, candidates who’ve apologized for their mistakes have had mixed results.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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