OK, so New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may be a bully with a taste for revenge. Still, yelling at people and having a staff that inflicts traffic jams on political opponents is small potatoes. To earn a place in the hall of fame of mean-spirited, vengeful politicians, Mr. Christie will need to up his game to match these title-holders.
• John Adams. Thanks to David McCullough’s revisionist biography, the second U.S. president has gotten a makeover. That’s a feat: Adams was famous for his pettiness, paranoia and pomposity. As vice president, he often paraded around with a sword at his waist; his detractors, poking fun at his significant girth, called him “His Rotundity.” As president and nominal leader of the Federalist Party, he proved remarkably thin-skinned, bridling at political attacks.
His wife plotted revenge, calling for legislation “enabling the president to seize suspisious [sic] persons, and their papers.” The nation’s first power couple got their wish with the Alien and Sedition Acts. “Let the vipers cease to hiss,” Abigail Adams declared. Her husband and his political allies used the legislation to prosecute political enemies, shut hostile newspapers and deport or imprison foreign-born political detractors.
When a congressman named Matthew Lyon ridiculed the president’s “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp,” a Federalist judge sentenced him to four months in prison. A mass movement to pardon Lyon failed to move Adams, who replied that “penitence must precede pardon.”
• Bobby Kennedy. In martyrdom, RFK has deservedly acquired a halo, and he certainly could be generous, idealistic and magnanimous. But he also relished intimidating people. His reputation for fierceness was such that he once joked: “People say I am ruthless. I am not ruthless. And if I find the man who is calling me ruthless, I shall destroy him.”
As an example, Evan Thomas, one of RFK’s biographers, reported that Kennedy, a champion of civil rights, allowed the FBI to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr. “to find out if he was under the influence of the Kremlin.”
And even his most fervent liberal worshippers have long recognized the parallel existence of a “Bad Bobby,” a reputation he acquired early in his career when he served as assistant counsel on the Senate investigations subcommittee, appointed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the bully of bullies. Kennedy would last only about six months in the job before being pushed out by McCarthy’s deputy Roy Cohn, another world-class bully. RFK would maintain a soft spot for McCarthy until the disgraced senator’s death in 1957. According to the historian Ronald Steel, for Kennedy, “the errant senator was a kindred spirit — one engaged, as he was himself, in the struggle against evil.”
• Andrew Jackson. Bully? Check. Petty? Absolutely. The seventh president was a hothead of the highest order and often inflicted revenge.
A frequent duelist with many wounds to show for it, Jackson loved to fight. The biggest political one of his career was the so-called “Bank War.” The battle was joined after Jackson’s political opponents tried to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States, a largely private institution that served as the government’s fiscal agent. Jackson, who viewed the institution as a dangerous concentration of political and financial power, was outraged.
“The bank,” Jackson informed his vice president, Martin Van Buren, “is trying to kill me, but I will kill it!” He vetoed the bill with a rhetorical attack that Nicholas Biddle, the bank’s president, likened to “the fury of a chained panther biting at the bars of his cage.”
After winning re-election, Jackson ordered his treasury secretary to withdraw the government’s deposits from the bank and place them elsewhere. The man refused, so Jackson appointed a new secretary, who also refused and got fired. Jackson finally got Roger Taney to serve and remove the deposits.
• Lyndon Baines Johnson. The foul-mouthed, irascible Johnson had a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas, and he didn’t hesitate to play the heavy to get his way.
His press secretary, George Reedy, described him as a “miserable person — a bully, sadist, lout and egotist.” The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it this way: “Through all his life he has discovered that, if you leaned on people hard enough, you pounded them hard enough, their breaking point eventually came.”
Johnson put these skills to good use in securing civil rights legislation, but he made the mistake of believing that similar tactics could be used to win the war in Vietnam.
• Richard Nixon. It’s hard to find a U.S. politician of the modern era who was so vengeful and paranoid — and willing to act on those emotions with wiretapping, harassment and dirty tricks.
Consider his reaction when antiwar politicians in Congress angered him toward the end of his first term. Nixon raged at his advisers in the Oval Office: “One day we will get them — we’ll get them on the ground where we want them. And we’ll stick our heels in, stomp on them hard and twist right.” Gesturing toward Henry Kissinger, Nixon said: “Henry knows what I mean. Get them on the floor and step on them, crush them, show no mercy.”
Before Gov. Christie considers channeling his inner Nixon, he might want to consider the 37th president’s words of regret on the day he left the White House in disgrace: “Never be petty. Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, wrote this for Bloomberg View.