Let's say that one day you find yourself face-down on the floor of the outhouse beside a Thai ladyboy emporium next to two unknown corpses. You can't feel all the cocaine you just took because the meth has pretty much dulled out your senses, there's a broken condom on the floor -- and another you're still wearing -- and you can't tell what the police are screaming from the helicopter outside because it isn't in a language you speak, but the helicopter definitely belongs to Interpol, so you must have done something pretty bad.
You would, at this point, probably retrace your steps and figure out how, exactly, you got here. Maybe think about some of the choices you made.
Currently, the American presidency is having its "find yourself high on meth next to dead hookers" moment. The two probable candidates have a combined disapproval rating in excess of 100 percent. As an average American, you disapprove of the next aggregate president 110 percent. There is 10 percent of you that does not exist and still disapproves of the next president. If this election were Sophie's Choice, Sophie's choice would be to murder both her children and then console herself that she isn't voting in 2016.
So now that we have turned Washington's dream into a Kafkaesque clown show, maybe we ought to look back at some of the highlights of how we arrived here.
#4. 1852: Mr. Faints-A-Lot Versus Mr. Unwilling-To-Murder-A-Former-President
Remember earlier this year, when Ben Carson -- the sleepy teddy bear who was iffy on whether or not his campaign was a pyramid scheme -- was running for the Republican nomination? Remember when he insisted he had tried to stab someone to death and -- for some unfathomable reason -- his opponents accused him of lying? It's not the first time that's happened.
The election of 1852 was essentially a stopgap measure. The Civil War was on the horizon and the nation -- like many couples just before a divorce -- was trying to find something irrelevant to fight about. Enter Generals Franklin Pierce and Winfield Scott. During the Mexican-American War, the Democratic candidate, Pierce, fainted twice. This would come back to haunt him. It also ought to haunt every man who has ever lived, since the reason he first fainted was because his horse reared and jammed the pommel of Pierce's saddle so far into his groin that he fell unconscious from the pain. Yes: Franklin Pierce's testicles were crushed until he passed out.
Waterman Lilly Ormsby
Just one of the many, many, many reasons nobody's ever filmed
a Franklin Pierce biopic.
This would be -- I think most people would agree -- ample punishment for a lifetime. But Pierce clearly had some really rough karma to pay off.
It's one thing to have your gonads shoved so far into your pelvic cavity that your brain shuts down all consciousness. It's another to have that be the central issue upon which a nation of your peers will decide whether you are fit to govern. But that is very much what happened. No less than the New York Times asked whether it was physical weakness or cowardice that was "the cause of his being unhorsed." The Whigs made it their central campaign issue.
And the Democrats fought back. Their strategy: Accuse Winfield Scott of not being a murderer. Back in his early years, Winfield Scott -- whose military nickname, "Old Fuss And Feathers," came from his obsessive attention to protocol -- served with General Andrew Jackson -- whose military nickname, "Old Hickory," came from the renowned texture and toughness of his genitals in an age before sandpaper. In 1817, Jackson challenged Scott to a duel and Scott refused for a number of reasons including, no doubt, the fact that guns refuse to fire at Andrew Jackson.
The duel was essentially forgotten until 1852, when the Democrats accused Scott of cowardice. (Cowardice was a big issue in 1852. If you didn't punch any man that gave you a sideways glance, you had your job and family revoked.) In case the relevance of this has worn off with the dates and names in the previous paragraph, let me restate what happened: The Democratic party thought someone was unfit for the presidency because he had refused to murder their own presidential candidate 35 years earlier.
"He fought in a war and now doesn't feel like killing? How can
the American people trust such a flip-flopper?"
Pierce ended up winning the presidency, proving the old adage "You can't not assassinate the president and still expect to be elected, especially if a horse has humiliated your opponent." And speaking of 19th-century Democrats and their foibles ...
#3. 1830-31: Society Ladies Versus Executive Power
Andrew Jackson, our nation's seventh president and the current stand-in for Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, was not an easy man to anger.
No, wait, I have that backwards. Andrew Jackson was the easiest man to anger who has ever lived. He was anger incarnate. He was to anger what James Bond is to venereal disease: its emblem and proudest avatar. Andrew Jackson without anger would just be a deflated hickory-bark penis. When a would-be assassin shot at him, Jackson chased the man down the street and beat him with a wooden cane. Jackson fought a duel in the midst of holding his chest wound closed. Then he fought in somewhere between 10 and 100 other duels. Jackson was angry before he got out of bed most mornings.
Library of Congress
"He tried to kill me" was simply a convenient excuse for something he was planning to do anyway.
But Jackson was at his best when he could just go ahead and needlessly slaughter his political enemies or send countless thousands of Native Americans to their deaths. He didn't care much for social gatherings where he couldn't be rendered furious and willing to murder. A critical weakness, it turned out.
In 1830, John Eaton -- an old friend of Jackson's as well as his newly appointed secretary of war -- stopped getting invited to dinner parties. The problem was that Eaton had married a widow and former tavern maid by the name of Margaret Peggy O'Neal. Marrying a widowed tavern maid was, to 19th-century women, the moral equivalent of a necrophiliac rampage through a family graveyard. Washington society ladies, led by Floride Calhoun and Emily Donelson, Jackson's niece, led a social embargo against the Eatons. They wouldn't speak to them, call on them, or have them over for dysentery and yellow fever (the primary social activity in the fetid swamp of 1830s Washington, D.C.).
"You can't shit with us!"
Jackson sided with the Eatons, but he and Martin Van Buren were the only members of his cabinet who did. The very real result of this very stupid fight was that Jackson A) asked for the resignations of his entire cabinet, B) accepted all of those resignations, and C) essentially promised Martin Van Buren the presidency once Jackson was finished with it.
George Peter Alexander Healy
What he lacked in wanton bloodlust, he more than made up for in mutton-chopped glory.
Now, of course, we can look back at this whole silly fight as the exercise in sexism and classism that it was. In the many years since, our collective cultural imagination has softened toward poor Peggy Eaton -- a woman socially ostracized merely for marrying too soon after her first husband's death. Early Hollywood demonstrated what a difference a century of hindsight and reflection can make when they tastefully titled a 1936 film about the whole affair The Gorgeous Hussy.
Whose best scene is, naturally, Jackson beating the dog shit
out of someone who annoys him for 10 seconds.