Monday, June 4, 2012

Dirtiest Election Ever: Beyond the F-Bomb

Every time a politician drops the F-bomb, the media are all atwitter. (Can Twitter be atwitter?) They run the clip over and over BLEEPING politely at the crucial moment so as not to offend us. The current two candidates for president are not the sort of folks who will be caught using this anglosaxonism although their associates may be. Jefferson and Adams in the election of 1800 usually preferred the perfect barbed comment also.

So what? Move off the "networks" and onto the cable channels and the F-Bomb is just another word among many floating across the airwaves. But looking back to the really nasty election of 1800 and its parallels with 2012, what is the story when it comes to salty language and attack words?

Today as in 1800 there were words that people thought too rude for public discourse. But what was happening behind the scenes? There folks weren't as gentlemanly as we like to think, especially when talking among themselves.

George Washington had a towering temper he kept in check for the most part. When he let it rip he could toss the verbal bombs with the best of them. When delegates to the Constitutional Convention sat with their pipes and port after dinner, they often swapped bawdy stories, just as people do today. One of their favorite games was inventing wilder and wilder puns about Gouverneur Morris' wooden leg and his way with the ladies. James Madison was infamous among his contemporaries for his off-color stories.

It's true they didn't throw the F-Bomb but they certainly came close. John Adams was no fan of Alexander Hamilton and in a letter to Benjamin Rush in 1806 let fly with this diatribe against Hamilton for remarks he had made denigrating George Washington.

John Adams
Although I read with tranquility and suffered to pass without animadversion in silent contempt the base insinuations of vanity and a hundred lies besides published in a pamphlet against me by an insolent coxcomb who rarely dined in good company, where there was good wine, without getting silly and vaporing about his administration like a young girl about her brilliants and trinkets, yet I lose all patience when I think of a bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar daring to threaten to undeceive the world in their judgment of Washington by writing an history of his battles and campaigns. This creature was in a delirium of ambition; he had been blown up with vanity by the tories, had fixed his eyes on the highest station in America, and he hated every man, young or old, who stood in his way or could in any manner eclipse his laurels or rival his pretensions. . . 

Pretty strong stuff...but not as strong as these "gentlemen" wrote under pen names in the popular press skewering one another and accusing one another of the worst intentions, treason, and more. Generally they lambasted one another with innuendo as well as direct attacks. In fact, what can be a delicious pastime is dissecting their elaborate language and watch as they slip the verbal knife between the ribs and give a fatal twist.

We seldom hear such creativity today where it's so easy to just go for the flat obscenity rather than the creative crudity. I was impressed when George Will called Donald Trump a bloviating ignoramus. The founding fathers would have liked that.

But are there any Leadership Lessons in all this?  Perhaps a few:
  • Leaders control themselves: George Washington was prickly and thin skinned and took offence easily. Yet his advice to himself and others was to show restraint of "tongues and pens." He kept his temper in check most of the time. "Losing it" on a regular basis causes people to disengage. 
  • Leaders cultivate creativity: "Bloviating" is such a yummy word and I'm sure many people scurried to google its meaning. (Synonym for blow hard) In our general anti-intellectual climate, leaders encourage their people to think and grow and become more articulate.
  • Leaders do not condone crudity: Leaders know that some language offends some people just like the bawdy stories and sexist remarks that have disappeared for most workplaces. They do not insist on better communication because of "political correctness." They want to be inclusive; they want everyone to be engaged.
Just because the founding fathers weren't saints doesn't mean we do not honor and respect them. We admire them because, like us, they were all too human, capable of pettiness and backbiting, and sometimes behaving badly. We can learn from them precisely because they are human. We can learn from their mistakes and when they triumphed over their human nature. And we can learn from their fierce honesty because they would call a bloviating ignoramus a bloviating ignoramus!
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What's your idea: Can we joust with more inventive language without bloviating? Please post your comments.
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Next: How foreign are foreign affairs?

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©Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, president, Advantage Leadership, Inc.
Want to know more about the tumultuous fights at the Constitutional Convention and the election of 1800? Check out Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers

I NEED YOUR HELP: I'm beginning research for my new book on the influence of leaders on their organizations (Washington's Shadow) and I'm interested in your experiences or ideas for case studies. Do you know a leader who has had a profound influence shaping the organization's culture and changing it for the better? (I'm not interested in negative stories which are much more common.) Drop me a note:

We've started a companion YouTube series and the introduction is up. Check it out.

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