In the recent “presidential” debate, just when we thought it couldn’t get any lower, sure enough one of the candidates made a vulgar allusion. (Yes, you had to have a dirty mind to catch it.) Of course the media are all atwitter. (Can Twitter be atwitter?) They run the clip over and over, pretending to be offended, but they run it ad nauseam.
So what? Move off the networks and onto the cable channels and the Anglo-Saxonisms flow regularly across the airwaves. But looking back to the really nasty election of 1800 and its parallels with 2016, what is the story when it comes to salty language and attack words? At the time Thomas Jefferson and John Adams faced off in what historians cite as the dirtiest election ever, what was the state of public discourse? In some ways it was as coarse as today.
Today, as in 1800, there were words people thought too rude for public discourse. But behind the scenes? There folks weren't as gentlemanly as we like to think, especially when talking among themselves. Adams’ surrogates claimed Jefferson was an atheist who wanted to turn churches into brothels. Adams’ irascible personality and weight were always fair game for “His Rotundness.”
George Washington had a towering temper he usually kept in check. 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. One of their favorite games was inventing wilder and wilder sexual puns about Gouverneur Morris' wooden leg and his way with the ladies. James Madison was infamous among his contemporaries for his dirty jokes.
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 an 1806 letter to Benjamin Rush hurled this diatribe against Hamilton for his remarks denigrating George Washington.
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 and even treason. Generally they lambasted one another with innuendo as well as direct attacks. It can be a delicious pastime to dissect their elaborate language and watch as they slip the verbal knife between the ribs and give a fatal twist.
Today it's so easy go for the obvious obscenity rather than the creative cut. In the 2012 presidential race, George Will wondered why Candidate Mitt Romney was embracing Donald Trump, whom he called a “bloviating ignoramus,” certainly an arcane insult the founders could have appreciated in their own rough and tumble elections.
Is this what we want to hear from our leaders? Has reality become reality TV? Are there any Leadership Lessons in all this? Perhaps a few:
· Leaders control themselves: George Washington was prickly, 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. He knew "losing it" on a regular basis causes people to disengage.
· Leaders cultivate creativity: "Bloviating" is such a yummy word, I'm sure folks 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, communicate better for collaboration, without reducing everything to the lowest common denominator.
· Leaders do not condone crudity: Leaders know language can offend like the bawdy stories and sexist remarks disappearing from most workplaces. Leaders insist on better communication not to be "politically correct" but to be inclusive; they need everyone engaged. Leaders foster serious, passionate debate and discussion to unearth the best solutions.
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 learn from them precisely because they made mistakes and then triumphed over their human nature.
This doesn’t mean we want this dubious name-calling, sexual-innuendo tradition to continue. When I watch fired-up candidates yelling insults rather than debating issues and policies, I flash on our sons as teenagers sitting on the sofa hurling barbs and punching each other. Normal teenage malarkey...but not the vision of leadership, functioning on the global stage or wrestling with intractable conflicts and seeking resolutions and peace. I hope we deserve better.
Jefferson, Adams, and the other founders showed us real leadership in tough times. They rose above their character defects. Can we do the same as we select a world leader?
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What's your idea: Can we joust without bloviating?* * * * * * *
(c) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein and 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 started a companion video series during the 2012 elections that holds true today.