OXFORD — Scanning the television guide for something to watch on a rainy evening, I couldn’t resist the promotional paragraph on an old Turner Classic Movie.
“A principled politician comes into possession of an unscrupulous rival’s dark secret and must decide if he will smear the man in order to gain his party’s nomination for the presidency,” was how TMC described “The Best Man,” a 1964 movie starring Henry Fonda as the good guy and Cliff Robertson as the one with the dark secret.
I won’t give away the story, except to note that both candidates had issues — one a past mental illness and the other possible homosexual experiences — that would have been bigger political liabilities in 1964 than now.
Also, there was a non-flattering reference by one of the characters to Mississippi’s segregation practices at the time.
Much has changed in the past 56 years — including a better understanding of mental illness, more acceptance of gay lifestyles and abolishment of Jim Crow laws in Mississippi.
But, as my high school English teacher used to point out when commenting on literature, human nature doesn’t change much over the years.
The phrase “principled politician,” by today’s or yesterday’s standards, seems like an oxymoron.
To be fair, there are politicians and public officials who have principles, probably more of them than many of us would admit. The good ones may even be in the majority most of the time.
But when it comes to political campaigns like those leading up to this week’s election for president, there isn’t much, if anything, one side won’t or hasn’t used against the other.
The same can be said of the U.S. Senate race between Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy.
There’s nothing new about no-holds-barred politics — some of it even leading to violence.
Alexander Hamilton, one of this nation’s Founding Fathers, was killed in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr..
In 20th century Mississippi, Theodore G. Bilbo was pistol whipped and caned for his vitriolic rhetoric.
So, saying bad things about an opponent certainly isn’t new.
But with today’s 24-hour cable news outlets and social media, it seems more exacerbated.
Also, more money is being spent on political campaigns, especially at the national and statewide levels, than ever before. That, in itself, pays for a lot of mudslinging.
It is not unusual in Mississippi statewide races and some district races, especially for Supreme Court judges, to see money coming from out of state as political action groups take sides by slamming candidates whose perceived views they oppose.
Not many political races are won by being “principled” in declining to make use of whatever shortcomings the opponent has. Taking one’s statements and records out of context is fair game in politics.
Local political races, where the candidates are personally known by a large percentage of voters, can be the exception. But even some of them can get pretty nasty.
One of my favorite stories, which I probably have used in this column before, was told in a speech by the late Paul Pittman, editor of The Tylertown Times.
It seems a young man decided to run for a local office in his county. His father advised against it.
“Son, they’ll talk bad about you,” the father said. “They’ll dig up everything they can — maybe even accuse you of stealing hogs and such.”
But the young man was determined, ran anyway and was soundly defeated.
“I told you so,” the old man said. “They said a lot of bad things about you, even to the point of accusing you of being a thief.”
To which the son replied, “They did, and the hell of it is they proved it on me.”
So it was with the recently completed election campaign.
A lot of bad things were said about the candidates on both sides. Much of it was twisted out of context and probably would have been better unsaid.
But, for better or worse, some of it was true.
• Charles M. Dunagin is the retired editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb. He lives in Oxford.