Political vendettas 'as American as apple pie'
January 12th, 2014
05:35 PM ET
3 months ago

Political vendettas 'as American as apple pie'

(CNN) – The world of political intrigue with backstabbing revenge against troublesome foes and threats against friends all in the name of winning an election or consolidating political power - is not just for Netflix’s hit drama “House of Cards.”

“Revenge and payback in politics is as American as apple pie,” said Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer.

 “I don't know whether this was a traffic study that then morphed into a political vendetta or a political vendetta that morphed into a traffic study,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said last week when he denied any involvement in a case of possible political payback in the George Washington Bridge scandal.

How the New Jersey scandal shakes out remains to be seen, but payback in American politics dates back to the early days of the union.

Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr

The earliest case of payback happened not too far away from the toll booth debacle in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in Weehawken.

Imagine if Vice President Joe Biden had killed Treasury Secretary Jack Lew because of deep-seated political disagreements.

That’s what happened in 1804 during a long-running dispute between Vice President Aaron Burr and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. The final chapter between the two political foes turned deadly when Burr killed Hamilton in a gun duel. Burr eventually went back to Washington to finish his term as Vice President, never to return to political office.

Tammany Hall “machine politicians”

Tammany Hall was the Democratic political machine that reigned supreme in New York City from the mid-1800s until the 1930s.

The political machine gained its political influence by smartly courting the influx of disregarded immigrants to New York City and feeding the numerous poor. More controversially, Tammany maintained its grip on power by exacting political demands.

“Tammany Hall politicians thrived in the politics of payback. If you didn't vote for them, patronage jobs would not come your way,” Zelizer said. “Indeed you might even find that your tax bills went up.”

One of Tammany’s leaders, William M. "Boss" Tweed, played an outsized role in New York City politics. The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University said he was “infamously corrupt,” and his actions eventually landed him in prison. Regardless, Tammany politicos continued to “direct the flow of money, patronage, and votes into the early 1930s.”

New York Gov. William Sulzer both benefited and suffered from Tammany’s political power. He rose to the governor’s mansion in 1912 with the help of Tammany but was later impeached because of it. After Sulzer was elected, he publicly ridiculed Tammany leaders. They were not happy and found allies in the state legislature to lead bogus, but successful, impeachment hearings, according to Kean University Professor Terry Golway, author of “Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Tammany Hall’s downfall, fittingly, was a result of political revenge. The organization lost its influence after Roosevelt was elected President in 1932. Upset that the organization didn’t support him in the presidential race, Roosevelt downgraded Tammany’s role to a mere county organization, causing it to lose its power and influence.

Also in that 1932 election, FDR was the lucky benefactor of political revenge. According to Golway, Roosevelt’s most viable challenger was New York Gov. Al Smith. But Smith had a long-running political battle with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Smith used his power to block the appointment of Hearst to an open Senate seat. Hearst got his revenge when Smith was running for President in 1932. Hearst propelled Smith’s decline by publishing daily stories alleging that Smith was responsible for the deaths of children because of high dairy prices. FDR won the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

President Richard Nixon

Nixon’s political ambition cost him his job. When his aides broke into Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate scandal, political revenge was part of his office culture.

CNN political analyst David Gergen, an adviser to four presidents, including Nixon, said Nixon created an environment in which political revenge was acceptable.

"I don't know whether Nixon ordered Watergate, but I can guarantee you that people who carried out Watergate thought that's what he would have wanted,” Gergen said.

Zelizer said Nixon “took revenge to new levels in the White House, tracking his opponents on an enemies list and doing everything possible to defeat them.”

“Some members of the administration were willing to break into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office just to dig for dirt on him,” Zelizer said, referring to the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers critical of the Vietnam War.

President Bill Clinton

 Clinton’s impeachment by the Republican-led House for the Monica Lewinsky affair was the ultimate payback for Nixon’s resignation more than 20 years before, wrote many commentators, including New York Times Columnist Maureen Dowd in 1999.

But Clinton survived and reportedly promised his own revenge. He vowed to defeat the Republicans responsible for his impeachment in the next election, even though his term was coming to an end and he would not be the ballot.

“It’s payback time, and payback time is hell," Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution at the time, noting that Clinton was a "savvy, hardball politician, and you've got to fear his ability and respect it."

Clinton’s revenge was partly realized. Republicans maintained their majority in Congress, but Democrats narrowed the gap.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay

 As House Majority Leader, DeLay’s style of retaliatory and congratulatory politics led to his nickname “The Hammer.” His style of leadership became notorious.

The Texas Republican was heavy-handed with both elected officials and power brokers outside of political office. His K Street Project worked to stock lobbying firms with Republicans. In one report, he threatened a trade association for hiring a former Democratic member of Congress.

DeLay was never far from scandal. His former deputy chief of staff pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for illegally using money to influence members of Congress. He was involved in a years-long court case that ultimately led to his acquittal on charges of conspiracy and money laundering.

In his last speech before he was forced to retire from Congress, DeLay said the only thing he would change about his tenure in politics is that he “would fight even harder.”

But DeLay insisted that charges of illegal activity brought against him were based on political payback.

"This criminalization of politics is very dangerous. It's dangerous to our system. Just because somebody disagrees with you they got to put you in jail, bankrupt you, destroy your family," he said during his sentencing trial.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry

In 2004, Perry ordered audits of state Comptroller of Public Accounts Carole Keeton Strayhorn, comparing Strayhorn’s campaign contributions to the decisions made by the state agency.

Strayhorn said the audits showed nothing and accused Perry of conducting “a witch hunt” and “a mean-spirited vendetta.”

She was a powerful Republican in Texas at the time who publicly had criticized Perry on many fronts. She also planned to challenge Perry for the governorship.

Strayhorn ran unsuccessfully for governor against Perry in 2006 as an independent.

Jim Greer, former head of the Florida Republican Party

When Jim Greer was forced out of his post as chairman of the Republican party of Florida, he called it “a political vendetta” for backing close friend and Gov. Charlie Crist in the Florida Senate race.

”Prior to my resignation as chairman, I was told on several occasions that if I didn't stop supporting Charlie Crist, they would throw the kitchen sink at me and come after me," Greer said told the Florida Today newspaper in 2010.

In March of 2013, Greer was sentenced to 18 months in jail for embezzling $125,000 of state party funds.


Filed under: Chris Christie • New Jersey
soundoff (59 Responses)
  1. Gurgyl

    Can smoke come without something? This guy is a bull.

    January 12, 2014 05:42 pm at 5:42 pm |
  2. LudwigVanB

    Sorry, Zelizer, there's nothing "apple pie" about breaking the law to indulge in political payback. Whoever is responsible for it should face the consequences.

    January 12, 2014 05:55 pm at 5:55 pm |
  3. Jeff Brown in Jersey

    “Revenge and payback in politics is as American as apple pie”

    This jerk shut down the most congested area in our country down for nearly a week. Kids couldn't get to school. People couldn't get to work. First responders could not get to life threatening situations. This is a typical act of political retribution? If YOU sat in that mess, you would be screaming for his head!

    January 12, 2014 06:10 pm at 6:10 pm |
  4. Smitty

    So its okay for Bammy to use the IRS on the tea party?? So its not ok for Christie to use the bridge?? You just cant make this stuff up. If these clowns spent half as much time working as they do being vengeful we all would be a lot better off.

    January 12, 2014 06:50 pm at 6:50 pm |
  5. Peter

    Note examples from BOTH parties, my little fanboys.

    January 12, 2014 07:00 pm at 7:00 pm |
  6. Anonymous

    its house of cards

    January 12, 2014 07:02 pm at 7:02 pm |
  7. Dateless Nerd

    It's one thing when political retribution ruins a rival's career. It's another when it harms the general public. That's the issue here. In many ways, it's like the mafia. When they fight among themselves, it's business as usual. But when innocent people get caught in the crossfire, it's gone too far.

    January 12, 2014 07:16 pm at 7:16 pm |
  8. Anonymous

    A small hint to our MSM: Don't keep underestimating your audience as you have done for the past 5 years. There is a difference in willfully causing a "vendetta" against another political party and the prompt handling of unknown problems as they arise. Richard Nixon tried that game. It went badly for him. America on the whole has learned how to stomach the lowest common denominator among us to a point. Chris Christie has reached, and gone beyond, that point. As have the right wing who continually shrill out their "IRS" "Benghazi" "Obamacare" distractions. Neither the media nor the shrills are fooling anyone.

    January 12, 2014 07:16 pm at 7:16 pm |
  9. Paul f

    Ok , but you don't go after the voters just the other side. This is way over the line.

    January 12, 2014 07:17 pm at 7:17 pm |
  10. jp

    tom delay is a crook and should be in jail. but he hasn't spend a day there to my knowledge.

    January 12, 2014 07:24 pm at 7:24 pm |
  11. Nodack

    Politics yeah!

    January 12, 2014 07:24 pm at 7:24 pm |
  12. Brian

    Where is Obama on this line up? Don't pretend you believe all the IRS, NSA.... is done without his knowledge.

    January 12, 2014 07:29 pm at 7:29 pm |
  13. Pied Piper

    And we'll all have another big unhealthy slice, please.

    January 12, 2014 07:30 pm at 7:30 pm |
  14. Expat American

    Christie's Republican-style attempt at revenge and payback ultimately cost an innocent person their life. Christie is personally responsible and he needs to pay for what he did.

    January 12, 2014 07:34 pm at 7:34 pm |
  15. Reasonable Descent

    Awesome, this article makes it all ok then.

    January 12, 2014 07:35 pm at 7:35 pm |
  16. Tony in Maine

    Does any of this make it excusable?

    In truth, this just shines the light on the Emperor , center stage and stark nekkid.

    January 12, 2014 07:36 pm at 7:36 pm |
  17. Rick McDaniel

    bad behavior seems to be commonplace among politicians.

    January 12, 2014 07:40 pm at 7:40 pm |
  18. John

    Notice two of the three presidents listed were democrats/

    January 12, 2014 08:05 pm at 8:05 pm |
  19. Rick

    And other countries regard the US as a bunch of pompous savages. Wonder why??

    January 12, 2014 08:14 pm at 8:14 pm |
  20. Fr33th1nk3r

    Uhhhh....wasn't apple pie invented by the British and Germans in the mid-1300's? Nice journalism, CNN....

    January 12, 2014 08:22 pm at 8:22 pm |
  21. bacon

    Christy has some powerful friends it would seem. So many news outlets have rushed to defend this guy who's actions led to the death of someone. Meanwhile these same outlets chased down anthony weiner and beat him to death with some sexts. How "convenient" for this guy........

    January 12, 2014 08:43 pm at 8:43 pm |
  22. bacon

    This guy's actions killed people. he should resign.

    January 12, 2014 08:44 pm at 8:44 pm |
  23. dvmil

    Why would you post some divisive drivel as this? Vendettas go against every American value I know of. I won't be a part of it and I reject any notion that it's anywhere near "as American as apple pie". Grow up, CNN.

    January 12, 2014 09:12 pm at 9:12 pm |
  24. peterfrohwein

    "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." Mahatma Gandhi

    January 12, 2014 09:23 pm at 9:23 pm |
  25. Anon

    Apple pie isn't American…try again.

    January 12, 2014 09:31 pm at 9:31 pm |
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