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Ugly presidential campaigns reach their 100-year mark

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS AUG. 30-SEPT. 2--FILE--Theodore Roosevelt campaigns for president this 1904 file photo. Roosevelt is subject Edmund Morris'

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, AUG. 30-SEPT. 2--FILE--Theodore Roosevelt campaigns for president in this 1904 file photo. Roosevelt is the subject of Edmund Morris' long-awaited biography, "Theodore Rex," the sequel, due in book stores in fall 2001, to his award-winning "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt." (AP Photo/ho)

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Updated: December 6, 2012 6:21AM



The modern presidential campaign is exactly 100 years old — in all the commotion over the current slugfest, I don’t think anybody has mentioned that. Before 1912, presidential elections were low-key affairs, with candidates rarely campaigning in person, and never attacking each other directly. Then former president Teddy Roosevelt leapt into the race between President William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, calling Taft a “fathead” with the “brains of guinea pig.” Taft returned fire, calling Roosevelt supporters “neurotics.” He became the first sitting president to actively campaign for re-election, determined, he said, “to keep a madman out of the White House.”

Sound familiar? Actually, that’s harsher rhetoric than either of our current contenders would utter, a reminder that, as much as we like to flatter ourselves that we’ve reached some nadir of gutter politics, the truth is, candidates are far more timid, and prefer surrogates. All these TV scare ads are mild compared to the tactics of the past — something to be proud of, by the way. You could hardly hold an election in Chicago in the 1930s without somebody throwing a grenade into a polling place. I’m not sure what will happen Tuesday, but I’m fairly confident it won’t involve explosives.

It’ll all be over Tuesday — whew, who isn’t relieved by that thought? Time to stop arguing. If you haven’t made up your mind by now, well, let’s say I wouldn’t want to have lunch at a coffee shop with you. “And this hamburger ... what is it, exactly? Is it made of ham?”

Not that the meat of issues got much debate, our pressing national agenda being reduced to a series of barbs for your opponent and bouquets for yourself.

Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney distinguished himself in this campaign. Obama spent most of his energy highlighting Romney’s flaws — and there are many. But as to what the president might do over the next four years, if re-elected, I couldn’t tell you for sure, and I’ve been paying attention.

I could say what I hope he’ll do — maybe that’s the point: be vague and let people imagine what they prefer your priorities to be. I like to think, if re-elected, Obama will turn his attention to the utterly neglected issue of illegal immigration, a ticking time bomb far more pressing than the deficit. Twelve million residents living in legal limbo can’t last forever, though we’re on the way. At some point, someone will have to exert the leadership required to figure this massive problem out.

That won’t be Romney and his dreams of “self-deportation.” As opposed to Obama, Romney has been saying exactly what he’ll do; unfortunately, it’s folly, from dismantling health care reform to pushing an impossible financial plan that involves big tax cuts while slashing programs for the poor. My Democratic friends have been expressing anxiety — what if Romney’s elected? I try to reassure them, pointing out that if we’ve learned one thing about Romney, it’s that he’s truly about change — changing his mind every other day, that is. He doesn’t stand for anything other than his own election. I find that oddly comforting — not that I think he’ll win, but he could, and its good to remember that he’s a man who doesn’t let what he said yesterday dictate what he’ll say tomorrow.

Either way, we’ll find out soon — maybe Tuesday night, or Wednesday, unless of course the whole thing becomes some protracted legal nightmare. Yet another worry. Here’s where patriotism, where love and faith in our country, is useful. We survived eight years of George W. Bush; we’ll also survive four years of whoever wins Tuesday.

Book notes

In past years, when I had a new book out, I’d do signings at independent bookstores, to give them a boost. I still do — I’ll be at the Book Bin, in Northbrook, on Nov. 29. But since Brent Books on Washington Street folded, there are no independent bookstores in downtown Chicago — not counting specialists like the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop — so this time I’m signing “You Were Never in Chicago” at Atlas Stationers, 227 W. Lake, from noon to 2 p.m. Thursday.

Which might seem odd, at first. Regular readers will recall that I went running last December with Terese Schmidt, co-owner of Atlas, who delivers office supplies by jogging them through the Loop. I’ve always had a soft spot for Atlas, founded in 1939, a paradise of pencils, manila envelopes and Pink Pearl erasers, occupying a lovely old brick building with cast iron columns in the shadow of the L, and suggested a signing so readers downtown could get signed books while also tucking some money in the Atlas coffers. I wrote the book using red pencils and printer cartridges from Atlas, so it’s only fitting that I return there to debut the finished product.



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