With the month of October heading into the homestretch, it’s a safe bet that as the temperatures cool down the political rhetoric will undoubtedly heat up. After all, we’re only a few short weeks away from yet another election day. In all probability, most of We the People intend to do our civic duty in November. But we may now just be taking a good hard look at candidates.
To be sure, political ads have already blanketed the airwaves and social media for weeks, if not months, and yard signs are more plentiful than autumn leaves. But a lot of what we’ve seen so far is an attempt at name recognition with a modicum of vitriol thrown in just to keep things interesting. Certainly, in the more prestigious races, the muck has gotten slimier by the day, but we all know that current accusations and character assassinations from both sides of the aisle are mere child’s play preludes to what we can look forward to.
I believe the technical term for what’s about to be unleashed on us is called the October Surprise. Or even Surprises. Opposition research being the advanced science that it is, what with the ability of virtually anyone to dig up dirt on anyone else via the Internet, it’s probably fair to assume that almost all campaigns are ready to let loose the dogs in short order.
That’s nothing new. Back in October 1800, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were in their “I-don’t-like-you-at-all” phase and ran against each other for President. One historical article I read had this quote from Alexander Hamilton (he of Broadway fame and a foe of Adams): “If we must have an enemy at the head of the government, let it be one whom we can oppose . . . who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures.” That was considered scandalous at the time, but not nearly as bad as a Jefferson supporter calling Adams “a hideous hermaphroditical character.” Obviously, diversity and inclusion were not in full bloom back then.
Eighty years later, again in October, a published letter purportedly written by James Garfield (later proven false) indicated that he had concerns over Chinese immigrants stealing jobs from American workers. His take was that business should be able to hire cheap labor if it so desired. That made workers in California so mad they voted against him.
On October 29, 1884, this same historical article noted that a Presbyterian minister suggested that the Democratic party was noted for “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” Republican candidate James Blaine did not immediately repudiate the claim which historians think cost him the Irish Catholic workingman’s vote and the presidency.
The October Surprises weren’t all merely rhetoric-gone-bad. Teddy Roosevelt was shot on October 14, 1912, just before a campaign event in Milwaukee. The story goes that the 50-page speech in TR’s pocket saved him from mortal injury. He continued with the talk that day but lost the election to Woodrow Wilson.
In more recent history, the Hungarian uprising on October 23, 1956, and the Israeli Army’s foray into Egypt six days later burnished Dwight Eisenhower’s stature and helped him cruise to re-election.
Readers of a certain age will recall that with Hubert Humphrey losing in the polls to Richard Nixon in a close race in 1968, then-President Lyndon Johnson decided to suspend American bombing raids in North Vietnam. That was October 31st. The October Surprise helped Humphrey picked up support. Yet not quite enough, as Nixon won the next week. And in a related incident in 1972, Henry Kissinger famously said, “Peace is at hand” two weeks before election day (briefly taking the public’s mind off Watergate).
In 2000, days before the election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, it was reported that W. had been arrested for drunken driving 24 years before. He quickly admitted his mistake, which may have limited the damage just enough for him to survive that contentious race.
So, what might happen this year? It’s not a presidential election year, but Joe Biden may have a trick or two up his sleeve to help his party’s nominees. Perhaps releasing more oil reserves to hopefully reduce the price of gas that’s been leaping upward again. Or maybe something to do with Russia and Ukraine.
Actions from the White House may help some candidates. But the real battles are going to be fought in the trenches of state and local races. You might want to get your waders out of the storage room. Because the mud’s going to get deep. And as it does, it’s probably best to follow that old adage of believing none of what you hear and half of what you see. But take heart; October can’t last forever.
©MMXXII. William J. Lewis, III – Freelance Writer
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