Politics in the United States ~ Just When Did It Get So Dirty?

 Mirror, mirror on the wall, which political party is the dirtiest of all? To answer this question, we need to consider some history.

mirror-mirrorAccording to the WiseGeek website, dirty politics can occur at any level of public service. Political candidates often use financial records like tax returns to embarrass an opponent or a nominee for a political appointment. Family members and known political associates may also become fair game in dirty politics. A candidate’s mental stability may be challenged, especially if he or she offers up an emotional or overheated response to dirty politics as did Ed Muskie during his bid for the presidency in 1972 . A negative ad campaign, however, is not always the same as dirty politics, provided the charges in the ads are true and verifiable.

Controversy surrounding accusations that Senator Chris Dodd, as Chairman of the Senate’s Banking Committee, and Senator Kent Conrad have accepted bribes and other “sweet deals” from the likes of failed mortgage giant, CountryWide Bank, are making things tough for Dodd, a five-term veteran lawmaker from Connecticut. He’s trailing in the polls for reelection this year against his Republican rival, Rob Simmons. The Republican propaganda machine obviously smells blood (see my earlier posting, Dodd and Obama – Are They Really Corrupt Birds of a Feather?).

Whether the accusations against Senators Dodd and Conrad can be proven or not, we don’t know. But, if they can be, why has there not been action taken against Dodd and Conrad since secret testimony was given to Republican investigators for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week? Are Democrats on the Reform Committee blocking action? Is that why was the testimony was “leaked,” or could it be that what is only rumored is more politically damaging to Dodd and Conrad that what can be proved? Ask me — I think this smacks of dirty politics.

According to a recent Gallup poll on what professions the American people most and least respect, nurses ranked highest (congratulations, dear). Politicians were fourth from the lowest, just ahead of lobbyists, telemarketers and used car salesmen. Why? Well, I suspect it’s because we all know that politicians lie and resort to all manner of dirty tricks, to include slander, libel, and forgery, to embarrass or discredit a political rival. Political campaigns are notoriously outcome-oriented, so rival candidates are both likely to engage in dirty politics. Even though we are repulsed by the use of dirty politics, we tend to overlook or minimize what our candidates do, then we damn the repugnant acts committed by the other guys. As in our watching of professional sports in America, especially football and ice hockey – we want referees to call foul on the other team, but we are happy if they’re looking the other way when our team fouls.

Once elected, Congressmen and women, as well as other elected and appointed “public servants” in the United States, take on the title, “The Honorable”. Really! How hypocritical can you get? No wonder so many Americans fail to go to the polls on election days.

According to her book, Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction and Democracy, Kathleen Hall Jamieson asserts that dirty politics have always played a role in American elections — ever since the times of Washington, Adams and Jefferson. Jefferson, for example, is said to have used pamphlets filled with incriminating or embar- rassing information about his political opponents, and several presidential elections since may have been swayed by the use of such dirty tactics.

I, for one, was dismayed by the dirty tricks committed during the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. Perhaps the worst example was Republican on Republican when, after losing badly to John McCain in New Hampshire, Bush operatives decided to “chop him up” in South Carolina. Flyers appeared saying that McCain had fathered an illegitimate child with a black woman (he and his wife have an adopted Bangladeshi girl), that his five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam had made him mentally unstable, that his wife was a drug addict – rumors and innuendo. Mr. Bush and his chief strategist then, Karl Rove –always denied any involve- ment, but they did nothing to call their attack dogs off and McCain’s campaign never recovered.

The dirt got even deeper during the national election in 2000 between Bush and Gore. Whether it really mattered or not, the Gore camp was accused by the Bush camp of being “the John Wilkes Booth” of political assassinations for bring up such “trifling” things as George Bush’s arrest and fine for admitting to a DUI charge when he was 30 years old – worse for his record on support for education in Texas, 48th in the nation while he was governor here. The Bush camp retaliated with ridicule of Gore’s proposed tax initiatives for energy incentives, for his advocacy for the environment, and for claiming to have invented the Internet. The actual word Gore used in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer was “create”. True, he did not invent the information technology used. But as a Congressman and later a Senator, Gore did do important legislative work that lead to making the government’s ARPANET available for commercial use – what Gore had referred to in the bill he sponsored as the “Information Super Highway”. So, in an important way, Gore did take the initiative to “help” create the Internet. While Gore’s campaign did turn negative, it wasn’t necessarily dirty. Everything it said about Bush was true and verifiable.

Who can forget the “swift-boat” attack ads against John Kerry in 2004 by the 527 group, Swift Vets and  POWs for Truth? This was in retaliation for Kerry backers pushing the story about George Bush having gone AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard after completing Air Force flight training to avoid service in Vietnam. The charge cost Kerry’s campaign dearly when documentary evidence to support the claim turned out to have “likely” been forged – but forged by which side of the argument? We may never really know. Why Bush’s failure to graduate from flight training and to fly in combat in Vietnam didn’t come up during the 2000 election campaign, we don’t know. Some speculate, however, that Gore’s campaign was afraid that the Bush camp would counter with stories about Clinton’s draft dodging. In my judgment, while the Kerry campaign’s skirts weren’t completely clean, the skirts of the Bush camp were definitely soiled – badly.

Despite the ugly things said and the disreputable accusations made by the McCain/Palin attack dogs in last year’s national election, I was truly proud of John McCain when, during a town-hall style rally, he repudiated a supporter for calling Obama an “Arab”, implying that he was not truly American and not to be trusted with the security of our nation. But, for the life of me, I cannot think of anything said or implied to by the Obama campaign that was anything but truthful and respectful toward McCain – Obama himself praising McCain for his many years of dedicated service to his country.

But the Democratic Party has not always taken the high road in national politics. According to historian and author, Joseph Cummins, the 1960s was the era of Democratic dirty tricks. In a 2007 interview with the New York Times, Cummins said, “In 1964, Lyndon Johnson oversaw one of the most corrupt elections ever against his Republican rival, Barry Goldwater.  President Lyndon Johnson, seeking his first elective term after taking over for the assassinated JFK, set out not just to defeat Goldwater, but to destroy him and to create a huge mandate for himself.

Johnson created a top secret after-hours group known as the “anti-campaign” and “the five o’clock club.” These political operatives, in close contact with the White House, set out to influence the perception of Goldwater in America’s popular culture. They put out a Goldwater joke book entitled You Can Die Laughing. They even created a children’s coloring book, in which your little one could happily color pictures of Goldwater dressed in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan.”

So, mirror, mirror on the wall, which political party is more likely to resort to the use of “dirty” tricks?  Hmmm… you chose. But I think it has more to do with the candidate than with which party he or she claims. Like love and war. elections are always “end game” contests.

Feel free to comment, whether you agree or not.

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Published in: on August 3, 2009 at 1:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

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