Historians Discuss Campaigns Closing Days
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GWEN IFILL: It has come to be known as the “October Surprise,” the unexpected disclosures that pop up during the final days and weeks of a campaign that have the potential to change the outcome, especially in a close race. It’s happening again, but it has happened before. Just ask presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of American history at the University of New Hampshire.
Michael, these last-minute disclosures, we heard about the explosives in Iraq. We have heard about what Iyad Allawi had to say about the assassinations of Iraqi soldiers and his criticism of the U.S. coalition forces. We heard about the illnesses of Yasser Arafat today and William Rehnquist earlier this week. Is this deja vu all over again? Have we seen these kinds of shocking headlines in the last weeks of a campaign?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think you would expect us to say everything old is new again. It happens a lot, in two cases: one is in a close election like this one. It also has to be an issue in the center of the campaign. The most obvious recent ones have been ones that occurred in two Bush campaigns, 1992 on the Friday before Election Day when President Bush 41 was running against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
One poll had Clinton and Bush almost even. Bush was making headway on the issue of honesty and integrity. That was the day that Caspar Weinberger, the Reagan secretary of defense, was indicted, the Iran-Contra scandal was revived and people questioned how much George Bush had known.
From that point on, he really began to drop. 2000, the George W. Bush people would say that had there not been a revelation about George W. Bush’s drunk driving arrest in 1976, he might have won the popular vote.
GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick, do you have greatest-hit picks on October surprises of years past?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: There are certainly many of them. I think one of the interesting issues is what a campaign does with the history that is unfolding, as life continues around us. In 1960, Martin Luther King was arrested at a sit-in at an Atlanta Department Store. That event in and of itself wouldn’t have changed the course of the election, but the Kennedy campaign saw it as an opportunity.
There was an effort made for the candidate, soon to be President John F. Kennedy. He called Mrs. Martin Luther King to express his concern, and meanwhile, Robert Kennedy spoke to the judge who had sentenced Martin Luther King to hard labor in the Georgia State penitentiary. He was about to be sent to jail and got him released on bail.
That changed the mind of Martin Luther king, Sr. Who had planned to vote for Vice President Nixon, and the day before… the Sunday before Election Day, flyers were produced and distributed at black churches telling of Kennedy’s gesture, and it’s widely believed this did make a difference in the response of African Americans during the election of 1960.
GWEN IFILL: Richard, how often are these events serendipitous and how often are they orchestrated in
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, that’s a good question. Actually, you know, we the end to think of these events as imposed from outside, events no candidate can react to; they’re just as likely to be tactical mistakes on the part of a campaign itself. Go back to 1960; when Richard Nixon accepted his party’s nomination, he rashly promised to campaign if all 50 states. He wanted to call attention to the fact that Alaska and Hawaii had come into the union during the Eisenhower presidency.
In practical term, that meant on the Saturday before the election, when he should have been in Illinois or Texas, he was on a plane headed for Alaska, which in those days, that was a lot more remote a destination than it is today. He paid a high price on Election Day. Another thing, they can be very personal. About a week before Election Day, Mamie Eisenhower was concerned about her husband’s health. Ike wanted to get out there and campaign 24 hours a day, if not for Nixon, then for his own place in history.
Mamie called Pat Nixon. It was a long story. She wanted the vice president to go to her husband, the president, and ask him not to campaign — at the same time, not to tell him that Mamie had called.
So you had this surreal scene where Richard Nixon is going to Dwight Eisenhower, who might be able to put him over the top, and throws cold water on his enthusiasm. It’s a very awkward scene. The president is miffed and mystified. He never did find out until after the campaign that it was Mamie all the time.
GWEN IFILL: Looking back over all this, Michael, does it make it as predictable as it’s possible in an unpredictable year to know there will be some sort of turn at the end?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: In a close campaign, anything can happen. When I was listening to Richard telling that great story, I thought Hillary Clinton did not go to the Democratic nominee this year and say, don’t ask my husband to campaign. It has some meaning because if this is a very close election, and John Kerry wins, people might say, one of the differences was that Bill Clinton campaigned for him in certain states.
GWEN IFILL: Has it changed the behavior, Michael, of candidates, when these disclosures happen, that the behavior, the response of a candidate ends up affecting the outcome?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure it does. Both candidates this year, I can assure you, they’re braced for some revelation that may come out or some event the next couple days. I guarantee you they’re planning for what they would say or do if those things happened.
The other thing, sadly, is it puts a lot of pressure on campaigns to at least think about maybe putting out something dirty about the other guy that could tip the balance. Oftentimes you think of people like Richard Nixon after 1960. Probably every morning he woke up at 2:00 A.M. between 1960 and the time he was finally elected in ’68 saying, what could I have done against John Kennedy in 1960 that might have tipped the balance?
GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick, I’m curious what you think about this idea of whether the candidates have to be prepared to respond to dirty tricks or whether this is something which is just outside events which drive these surprises.
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think that they’re always prepared or they should be prepared. In 1980 the Reagan campaign did something interesting. They were very concerned that at the final moment President Carter would secure the release of the Iranian hostages, so they began to say in the weeks before Election Day, be ready for an October surprise.
I believe the expression dates to that election campaign. They were sort of warning ahead of time that there might be a cynical bid on the part of the Carter administration to finally do what they had been unable to do for a year, free these hostages and, therefore, to offset this event should it happen. Of course, it did not happen until Inauguration Day, the inauguration of Reagan, as it turned out.
GWEN IFILL: Have there been cases, Richard Norton Smith, where it has backfired?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Where it has backfired? That’s interesting. 1968 Richard Nixon in some ways anticipated the Reagan playbook of 1980. Everyone knew Lyndon Johnson wanted Hubert Humphrey to win. The best way for that to happen was for there to be some progress toward a negotiated peace in North Vietnam, a halt in the bombing, et cetera.
Nixon people knew that all of this was in the works, so Nixon basically jumped the gun and suggested that this was about to happen, even before President Johnson could indicate that he had, in fact, reached an agreement of sorts with the government of North Vietnam to go back to the table and halt the bombing.
Subsequently for 35 years, historians have debated whether Nixon and his allies actually poisoned the well in Saigon. They didn’t really need to because the president of South Vietnam really balked on his own. The Nixon people thought if the campaign end on Saturday or Sunday, they would have lost.
The last poll showed that Hubert Humphrey, after trailing all year long, had taken the lead. But there was a counter move that came in as people began to think that maybe LBJ was playing politics. Maybe there wasn’t going to be a peace immediately after all. In the end, Nixon won by one half of 1 percent.
GWEN IFILL: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But also an example of exactly what you’re saying, what Richard is saying in 1968, Lyndon Johnson had intercepts of conversations that suggested that Nixon had almost violated the law in telling the South Vietnamese, don’t negotiate, I’ll give you a better deal, trying win the election himself.
One of these big decision came to Johnson and Humphrey, do we release this and show Nixon has committed almost treason or do we not? Johnson and Humphrey ultimately decided, as bad as this, is we can’t release this because if Nixon is elected, no president should come in with that kind of a dirty cloud over him. I wonder later on whether Humphrey felt he’d done the right thing.
GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick, it hasn’t taken long this week for it to become a cliché that anything can tilt this election because it’s so close. How unusual is it in the final days as we come up to Election Day for a campaign to be this close?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: There have been some cliff hangers. It’s interesting the way that we think it’s going to go, when you’re in the situation, it’s just very, very hard to tell until the final moment. You know, Abraham Lincoln once said that the strife of an election really reflects the fact that human nature is being applied to the facts of the case. You have wise and silly people. You have good and bad people. You have people with weaknesses and people with strengths. And when we’re in this playing field, really anything can happen.
GWEN IFILL: Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You know, you think about these guys. I am sure they’re under great temptation to probably things that are not very nice, release things about the opponents perhaps, make charges that won’t look good in the light of history and just in both their minds, you have to think they’re thinking, do I do this and win the election or do I do something that’s more statesmanlike but live for the next thirty or forty years with the possibility I may have thrown this away?
GWEN IFILL: Richard, when is the last time it was this close?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, ’76 was close. People thought ’80 was close going into the last week of the campaign, according to the polls. 2000 was very close. What’s different I think is this race isn’t just close, it’s incredibly intense. Many would say it’s very bitter. We’ve used the word ad nauseam, it’s polarizing. The country is divided down the middle, not just ideologically but culturally. There is undoubtedly an extra edge to this campaign that I don’t think we’ve seen in our adult lifetime.
GWEN IFILL: Richard, do we think it’s possible these last-minute revelations, whatever the source might be, that they can cast a shadow over governing?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: No, I don’t think so. I think the story, for example, the story we’ve been talking about, the missing explosives, really is a metaphor. The Kerry campaign obviously hopes to use it as part of a larger indictment of what it sees as incompetence in terms of how the Bush administration has prosecuted the war. If the American people believe that’s representative, then I suppose you could say this president is in deep caca.
GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick, what would you say is the significance of these kinds of last-minute disclosures?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, you know, it’s interesting that we focus on the last-minute disclosures. What’s really proceeding around us is this drama over newly registered voters and challenges potentially to their credentials or certainly rumors to that effect.
So as we sit around waiting for some big crisis to occur, in point of fact, the whole machinery of the election may itself create a very big crisis that is starting to unfold even to this day.
If newly registered voters are dissuaded from going to the polls because they’re concerned about their credentials being challenged or they become fearful, particularly in urban neighborhoods where there are many new voters, this is a very serious matter that harkens back to previous times in American history.
GWEN IFILL: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: One more issue and that is sometimes we need to know certain things. When Bob Packwood was running for reelection in Oregon, an Oregon newspaper made the decision not to publish revelations about sexual harassment; waited until after the election because they felt that would tip the balance too much, later on a lot of people felt they really should have published this because we should have known.
GWEN IFILL: Michael Beschloss, Ellen Fitzpatrick and Richard Norton Smith, see you all election night.