Political vendettas 'as American as apple pie'
January 12th, 2014
05:35 PM ET
7 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. Kevin Spacey

    I apologize for previously calling you an idiot. It was uncalled for.

    - Kevin Spacey, actor renown for performances in "American Beauty", "The Usual Suspects", "Glengarry Glen Ross", "21", and, of course, "HOUSE OF CARDS"

    January 12, 2014 09:47 pm at 9:47 pm |
  2. 1alien1

    even if he was a big enough fool to be involved, to do that to the american citizens is behond the norm. if he knew he should be prosecuted

    January 12, 2014 09:48 pm at 9:48 pm |
  3. Kevin Spacey

    Loved the article, too.

    January 12, 2014 09:52 pm at 9:52 pm |
  4. Eric J. Beck

    "Political vendettas 'as American as apple pie'" – WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!? That we should accept it as we accept apple pie?!? That vendettas are as GOOD as apple pie?!? Who came up with this absolutely INAPPROPRIATE use of "...as American as apple pie."? Should we smile and be proud of political corruption in America as would a baker over an apple-filled, light-crusted masterpiece?!? NO!!! Helping others is as American as apple pie! A great sporting event is as American as apple pie! A Harley-Davidson is as American as apple pie! APPLE PIE IS GOOD! Corruption is NOT. Find another metaphor, for Chrissakes!

    January 12, 2014 09:57 pm at 9:57 pm |
  5. nuclear mike

    May the Revolution never end!!!

    January 12, 2014 10:20 pm at 10:20 pm |
  6. lerianis

    True, vendettas are common in American history.... however, they should not be. These people are supposed to be PUBLIC SERVANTS, they are not supposed to allow their egos and their p1ss1ing contests to harm their constituents.

    January 12, 2014 10:31 pm at 10:31 pm |
  7. brian

    Nixon had an army of "dirty tricks" people. Read a transcript of his notorious tapes. He had a visceral hatred of Jews. He used every four letter word in the book to describe Jews. He had four psychiatrists. One, Dr. Hutschnacker came forward after "Tricky" died. He said Nixon's problem was he had an "unnatural relationship with his mother."

    January 12, 2014 10:38 pm at 10:38 pm |
  8. YoonYoungJo

    I just read the Burr – Hamilton one. As this whole idea of Politcal pay back seems a little malicious to me. But I find the Burr – Hamilton one interesting because it is considered political payback. As morbid as it sounds, gun duels back in those days were considered kinda fair. It was a duel and unless one person used a sniper instead of dueling, that was the culture. This doesn't mean I support argument settlement by gun dueling lol.

    January 12, 2014 10:56 pm at 10:56 pm |
  9. Bob Albrecht

    Just because there is corruption and political payback in America, doesn't mean that it is "as American as apple pie." Quite the contrary, this kind of activity is very un-American as it is more pronounced in other-less civilized countries. Please do not portray this nasty behavior as the norm, call it what it is: organized criminal activity. A good politician will never get in the mud with pigs.

    January 12, 2014 10:56 pm at 10:56 pm |
  10. Mopery

    Career Politician = Serial Psychopath

    January 12, 2014 10:58 pm at 10:58 pm |
  11. Bob Dealin'

    so you are sayin' Mister CNN Reporter
    if they get caught being bad, we oughta deport her
    takin' the cross town bus used to cost a quarter

    January 12, 2014 10:58 pm at 10:58 pm |
  12. xnmt

    Oh, well it's okay then.

    January 12, 2014 11:20 pm at 11:20 pm |
  13. J.V.Hodgson

    I have heard two potential theories for the bridge gate scandal
    1) To get back at the Fort Lee mayor for not endorsing Christie... possible but the mayors own statements are weak here.
    2) Much more likely, is to Hit back at democrats generally and House Senate leader in the state for Obstructing his supreme court appointments... that's directly linked to Christie and makes him clearly a bully .i.e someone who gets nasty when he cant get it all his own way.
    He's dead from the neck up from my point of view if he thinks I'll vote him into the runner for next president of the US.
    Regards,
    Hodgson

    January 12, 2014 11:31 pm at 11:31 pm |
  14. Winston Smith

    Then it's time for the whole country to grow up. The infighting and childish attitude of these so called leaders makes the people of the nation look childish and petty. this doesn't garner respect, regardless of military strength.

    January 12, 2014 11:57 pm at 11:57 pm |
  15. Scott

    There is a difference because none of the political vendettas listed above was done at the cost of everyday citizens. I won't be voting for Chris Christie and I previously had a high opinion of him.

    It is acceptable to most partisans to politically battle each other. Such behavior is tolerated to a limited extent, even though many voters see it as bad behavior.

    Christie crossed the line however when he deliberately choose to screw over everyday citizens in his malice. The choices he and his underlings made were evil.

    These were high level aides, not some immature junior staffers, in the infamous emails. His defense is lame. He is incompetent if he did not know what his top aides were doing. Personally, I am deeply skeptical of his claims that he had nothing to do with this matter. But either way, he is not presidential material.

    I think Christie may not survive in the governors mansion since the NJ legislature now has reason to impeach him. I think they butcher him like a fat pig. It is sad to watch, but I feel Christie deserves the punishment that will be coming his way.

    January 13, 2014 12:00 am at 12:00 am |
  16. woodie

    I don't care what these yoyo's do to each other. If they violate the public trust, they need to get thrown out on their ear. And this traffic jam is a serious lack of integrity. We cannot afford these kind of dummies in public office.

    January 13, 2014 12:04 am at 12:04 am |
  17. name. willard

    If christie will get impeach so why not ??????????????????????????
    Presdient obama should be impeach what about scandal ???

    January 13, 2014 01:08 am at 1:08 am |
  18. YoonYoungJo

    So just because the author of this article can list a couple of handfuls of Political vendettas, that makes is common? And justifies it? So because people having been robbing homes since the beginning of time, then that's acceptable, let's all hit the streets and start robbing every home we can hit, because its been done since the beginning of time? This article is dumb.

    January 13, 2014 01:33 am at 1:33 am |
  19. blue max

    gotta love tom delay's defense on money laundering charges...'the law only applies to cash, not checks.' hard to believe the gop judges on the appeals couurt bought that, they did. amazin.

    January 13, 2014 02:42 am at 2:42 am |
  20. Jay

    Political vendettas are as American as apple pie. However, when you are stupid enough to use public funds, officials, equipment, etc, for them, they are also criminal. If you want to pursue such vendettas, do not be too cheap to use your own funds, tools, etc.

    January 13, 2014 04:51 am at 4:51 am |
  21. Marie MD

    This isn't a vendetta against the governor. I believe a 90 year old woman died and thousands were stuck in traffic because the BIG bully from NJ had his feelings hurt.
    The only other death was Burr and, as little men will do, a gun was in play.

    January 13, 2014 06:23 am at 6:23 am |
  22. current state of the union

    Get real he knew

    January 13, 2014 07:27 am at 7:27 am |
  23. king

    i hear folks say that because Christi had answered questions for nearly 2 hours they believe what he's saying. and guest who is saying such things! yes your right, folks like pribus. Christi is a prosecutor for crying out loud, he was so good at it that they made him prosecutor over the whole land of new jersey. a prosecutor jobs is to break down suspect inch by inch, for weeks or even months. now you cannot tell me that a prosecutor, who have gone to the pinnacle of his trade cannot build up himself for a couple hours, when he knows all the tricks in the book. why you think their is no paper trail leading back to him. this is not the average joe folks, this is the prosecutor of the whole state of new jersey. now for priebus to redicule this white house for months with scandals which not one is viable,nor goes back to the white house directly, to call this president, the in the dark president, when he has to manage 100 times more people than Christi. then call Christie believable when all the criticism is coming to people that Christi directly manage is a farce. their is no one on this planet that tell me that Christi had no knowledge of this crime and i would beleive them. 4 days of the busiest bridge shut down, and you have the gall to say you didn't inquire, nor no one told you about it. if you cannot manage a small state like new jersey, how the hell can you manage the whole country.

    January 13, 2014 08:07 am at 8:07 am |
  24. Malory Archer

    Politiicians snubbing other politicians for a political gain is nothing new. However, shutting down the busiest bridge in the world, endangering American lives and interfering in interstate commerce is something entirely new – and a serious criminal matter. Attempting to falsely equate a federal crime with the examples above is sadly laughable.

    January 13, 2014 08:18 am at 8:18 am |
  25. GOP = Greed Over People

    First off, to those calling the bridge lane closure a "prank", pranks are for teenagers NOT grown men in an elected office in charge of the public's safety. Calling it a prank is merely an effort to deflect and diminish the severity of shutting down lanes used by emergency vehicles, just because you are PO. We do not need such childish actions in the highest office in the land.

    Now, there are rumblings of misuse of federal disaster funds, IF proven, this clown needs to stay a small state governor that agrees and supports his abrasive demeanor of "I am right, and you are both wrong AND stupid if you disagree or question me"!

    January 13, 2014 08:19 am at 8:19 am |
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