Richard Reeves

The American Way of Campaigning: Dirty

LOS ANGELES -- A long time ago, I won a Publisher's Award at The New York Times for an article on negative campaigning. Actually it was called "negative research" in those relatively innocent (or ignorant) days. What I described was the secret part of John V. Lindsay's candidacy for mayor of New York City in 1969, a room hidden downtown where bright young researchers scoured old newspaper clippings to record embarrassing legislative votes and flip-flopping quotes by Lindsay's principal opponents.

The best thing they came up with, as I recall, was a quote by the city's controller, Mario Procaccino, a Lindsay rival, who campaigned in Harlem by saying, "My heart is as black as yours." That all seems pretty tame in these days of Google, Lexis-Nexis, hacking and "trackers" who follow candidates around with handheld video cameras hoping to catch some stupidity or cussword that can be blown up or distorted into a brief media frenzy or used in a negative campaign commercial.

The most recent example to get big coverage was the "macaca" fiasco in the campaign for the Senate in Virginia. The incumbent, Republican George Allen, used the word, whatever it means, to make fun of a tracker, a dark-skinned American of South Asian descent working for Allen's Democratic opponent, James Webb. Now, at every stop, Allen has to more or less deny that he is a racist.

So I was drawn to an article by David Mark in the excellent libertarian magazine Reason about the history of negative or "dirty" campaigning, particularly to his list, "The Ten Dirtiest Political Races in U.S. History." He gets going, incidentally, by showing there is nothing new under the sun, beginning the list with the 1800 presidential race between men we now revere for their integrity, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Appropriately, that was our first contested presidential election. Jefferson charged that Adams intended to marry off his son, John Quincy Adams, to a daughter of King George III -- then turn the country back to the British. Adams and his men retaliated by saying of Jefferson: "He is a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." Pretty colorful stuff, but Jefferson won the election.

The rest of Mark's list included:

-- The 1884 presidential campaign when Republicans called the Democrats the party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion," then accused the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, of fathering an illegitimate child: "Ma, ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!" Cleveland won.

-- Lyndon Johnson's 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater, in which the Democratic president essentially accused Goldwater of wanting nuclear war.

-- The 1968 campaign when the Democrats ran a television ad with a black screen featuring just four words: "Agnew for Vice President?" The sound track was laughter.

-- Two Senate campaigns for Jesse Helms, in 1984 and 1990, featuring code-worded commercials appealing for white votes by implying that blacks were taking over the country.

-- A 2002 congressional race on Long Island in which the Republican incumbent, Felix Grucci, accused his opponent, college president Tim Bishop, of "turning his back on rape victims." The charge, based on an inaccurate college newspaper story, backfired, and Grucci lost his seat.

-- The 2002 and 2004 elections in which two Democratic war heroes, Sen. John Kerry, running for president, and Sen. Max Cleland, running for re-election in Georgia, were accused of being anti-military by opponents who never served.

-- A 2004 Texas race for the House of Representatives in which the Democrat, Martin Frost, ran film of his opponent, Peter Sessions, running in a group of young and naked streakers. Sessions then accused Frost of being a friend of Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary, who once went to jail for making an indecent proposal to a 14-year-old fan.

So it goes. But where? Mark's article, based on his book "Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning," recounts the lively academic debate about whether dirty politics works.

The answer: Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. But, always, it is as American as waving the flag -- and that almost always works.

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