TOPICS > Politics

Historical Negativity in Campaigning

October 25, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We get that longer view from three NewsHour regulars, presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Suzanne Garment, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics. Welcome to all of you. Suzanne, what is–how would you compare the tone of this campaign to the tone of campaigns in the past?

SUZANNE GARMENT, American Enterprise Institute: Well, we’ve certainly had nastier campaigns in the past than this one is. What seems to be interesting about the tone of this one so far is that at this late date candidate Dole is trying to raise ethical issues, and no one is listening. Very few people care, or even, I think, understand what he’s referring to.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And is this different, very different from in the past?

SUZANNE GARMENT: This is a rather new experience. In the past, in the past couple of decades, the coin of scandal and ethics has been so debased that I think many people now feel cynical about all politicians, and unwilling to listen to talk about distinctions among them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you mean when you say the coin of scandal has been debased?

SUZANNE GARMENT: We’ve had a lot of scandals. Some of them have involved very serious offenses, and some of them have been real junk. And there aren’t many of us anymore who can tell the difference.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So what do you think about that? Do you think it’s quite different from the past, and then let’s move into this, this other subject too, about whether the scandal of the–the coinage of scandal has been debased.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: There has always been talk about this kind of thing, but it’s been talked about differently in recent years from most of American history. Presidential campaigns for most of our history were very gentile things, mostly candidates not only did not barnstorm, they rarely mentioned their opponents’ names, and only in recent times, do you see the kind of campaign that we’ve seen with candidates taking a train, or flying around the country, and also denouncing the opponents by name. The other, I think, very big change is that you now have television commercials, so that one campaign can make really scurrilous charges about another candidate, but it doesn’t have to be in the voice of the candidate, himself. It can be done by commercial and very effectively so that nowadays it’s very possible to run a really nasty campaign but don’t force the candidate to do that. I think in the last ten years there’s been a great effort to use particularly television commercials to define an opponent in a negative way. The gold standard for this was George Bush’s campaign I think against Michael Dukakis in 1988, which established Dukakis as sort of an alien figure who liked to send prisoners on furlough, where they committed murder, and also someone who was a card-carrying member, as it was said, of the ACLU, someone who was somewhat outside the American mainstream. That, I think, has caused every candidate in recent times to race to define the opponent in a negative way. Commercials do that; speeches probably do that less.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But, Doris, there was lots of negative campaigning in the past too, wasn’t there?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Right. I think we’ve almost come full circle, or maybe I’m hoping we’ve come full circle, which is that in the old days the negative campaigning took the form of circulars or handbills, or songs or slogans even. I mean, for example, it was said that Jackson had a whole bill of sins that he had to answer for in a circular that he was a gambler, he was a murderer, he was a thief. They said his mother was a prostitute who had married a mulatto and had him as a child. They said his wife, Rachel Jackson, was an adulteress. Indeed, he said, when the campaign was over–she died a month later–that they had murdered his wife by the negative tone of the campaign. But it was always a partisan source. You knew where it was coming from. Each paper was an opposition paper or a party paper, so you knew where it was all coming from. And you didn’t have to think it was some objective thing. They used to have these great songs about Van Buren–(singing)– “He would for gold his country sell,/Deserves the slowest place in hell–Van Buren.” So it’s not like it was gentile totally, but as Michael suggested, it wasn’t the candidates doing it themselves; it was the parties, and you knew where it was happening. Once television came into this fray, probably beginning with 1964, with Goldwater in that little ad against Goldwater on Johnson’s side, where the little girl picked the petals on the daisy and the nuclear countdown occurred, then it was coming in your living room, in your kitchen, and you felt it was almost real, real, because it was on the television screen. But now we’ve come full circle where we know it’s the other guys doing this, the other party, as was said at the beginning, the coin of it has become so debased because it’s so prevalent that now we see the source and we tend to discount it again. I think that’s a very healthy thing if that’s happening.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you agree that it’s being discounted now?

HAYNES JOHNSON, JournalistAuthor: Yes, I do, and it’s fascinating, just listening to my friends here, and what Suzanne began talking about, there is a paradox to this campaign. It’s not nearly as negative, but the fear of it being, we kept talking about it–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Let me just stop you one minute. So you don’t it is as negative as many other campaigns?

HAYNES JOHNSON: No, no, I don’t at all. I agree, and I think what Doris was just saying about if you go back and read those early circulars, go back to the first one, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, it’s incredible. I mean, but they were people who were anonymously writing under Greek names and so forth, publicists, and all this–vicious attacks, but they were–they were done by the party, and Doris is right about that. It’s also what Michael was saying, the age of television now. We see these commercials, and, and because of that, because of opposition research and because of the Dukakis campaign with Willie Horton becomes an image, scary, sinister, there he is, the revolving door, he’s in your face, and bang, he’s going to get you, that’s dirty campaigning because it linked it with–but this, this campaign has been feared that it was going to be dirty but, in truth, it’s not. You can see it in Mr. Dole’s frustration. You could see it today in what he said down there. He wants people to say, wait a minute, this is really bad, but it’s not connecting.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. So why is that happening?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I think for the reasons we’ve suggested here, that the–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Or is that tolerance has changed?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I think the public is saturated with the notion of dirty tricks and, and cynical about the manipulation you see on the screen, and we have also come in a backdrop of the last four years of intensive examination of the Clinton presidency and Whitewater and Hillary and Paula Jones and X and Y and Z, and people kept saying this was going to define the campaign, and it hasn’t.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think about that, Suzanne? Is it–is it partly that people are tired of the way “negative campaigning” is being done, is that the problem?

SUZANNE GARMENT: It would have to be part of it. I don’t think there are many people who can put up with unrelieved partisanship, apart from those of us in, in the chattering classes, as Gore Vidal would say. No, people don’t want their lives to be lived in those categories, and they’ve seen so much of it, and for such partisan motives that they’re only rational to discount heavily.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, Sen. Dole said today–and he said yesterday that the Clinton administration has not gotten enough press scrutiny, that the press is not paying enough attention to the ethical lapses in the Clinton administration. Do you think the press has changed in the way it looks at these issues?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: No. I think what’s happened in the Clinton situation is that there’s an immunity I think both on the part of the public and even the press because he has been so talked about all four years of his term in terms of various scandals, nothing is new. If we had never heard about Paula Jones or Gennifer Flowers or Whitewater and Dole had been able to bring them out in the course of this campaign, he’d probably be the next President because it would suddenly be a shock. But the fact is we know Clinton. He’s a familiar figure. He’s been around with his flaws, with his scandals, so for the press to find one of these new things–and they’re not going to win a Pulitzer Prize by saying the same thing that happened and has been talked about for the last four years, I think there’s still a desire on the press to discover something new, and I’m sure there’s people out there looking for that, and so far, what Dole has been talking about are reruns of the past. And that doesn’t have the sexiness really in a certain sense that everything else did before.

SUZANNE GARMENT: The dynamic of this is somewhat different from what it’s been in the past. During Watergate, which, which involved some sins, of course, that are much larger than the ones we’re talking about now, Woodward & Bernstein kept the story alive in the “Post” even when everyone else was saying this is nothing new, there is nothing here. Uh, the pattern here has been that a story is floated, there is not much initial interest expressed, and then the story recedes. So, so the instinct for the jugular is, I think, like everything else, getting tired.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That’s a very interesting point, but does that indicate that the public–had the public tolerance been then the way it is now, we wouldn’t have gotten all those stories about Watergate.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that’s true, and you got this sort of very difficult balance, because on one side it is very important for us to have as much information about the Clinton presidency as possible because if it then comes into public view next year, many people will feel that they had voted for him under false pretenses, just as many people in 1972, who voted for Richard Nixon, felt that within a year, once they had learned everything about Watergate, they would never have cast the vote that way, so that would argue in favor of the press being as intrusive, investigative as possible, and also for people to give as much attention to at least the possibility of these things as could be.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is anything else going on here with both sides not wanting to bring out private lapses?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, absolutely, because everyone knows now that we have things called opposition research, huge amount of moneys invested in all political campaigns, and they all do it looking into scandal and see if they can get the other guy, and you can do it through leaks, you can do it through innuendo, you can do it through whispering campaigns, and, and we’re all human beings, and our politicians are, like us, human beings, fallible, make sins, make mistakes. They have things in their past that can be embarrassing, and there is the sense that–and we do have a sort of voracious appetite for it, no matter what we may say here, and you see scandal sort of dominating the airwaves in many ways, not just political scandal. Tanya Harding all of a sudden–O.J. Simpson–we like it, and yet, at the same time, we say we hate it, but the political people know that they also may be guilty. And I think, if I could add one thing, the money, the latest thing on the money–I think the reason it hasn’t taken is the deep cynicism that &they all do it.& And so it’s hard to make the case that this case–I’m talking about the money–Indonesian money, foreign money–Dole is now making this case very hard. The fact is most people, I suspect, say, yeah, I suspect that’s true, but what about them? And we are immunized in a way, as Doris said.

SUZANNE GARMENT: And how do you–oh, I’m sorry.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I was just going to say opposition research also has an historical precedent. One of them is 1940, Franklin Roosevelt wanted to float the news that Wendell Wilkie had a mistress in New York, and actually we have on tape Roosevelt telling his aides to circulate this, and it turned out that that was thwarted by the fact that the Republicans discovered that Roosevelt’s vice-presidential candidate, Henry Wallace, sent letters to a guru referring to FDR as “the flaming one.” This was not going to generate very much confidence in Wallace as vice president, and it’s been suggested that there was a little bit of a tacit exchange that each would not reveal the bad information about the other, and that is something I think that probably has been the case in more recent campaigns as well.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, Lincoln once said, “Show me a man without vices, and I’ll show you a man without virtues.” I think to the extent that all these characters are honest about their own flaws mixing with their strengths, maybe they’ll be a little more hesitant about taking the other guy on, because it’s going to come right back to haunt them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Suzanne, you were–

SUZANNE GARMENT: Mutual assured destruction.



ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So as Time Magazine put it, Bob Dole finally plays the character card and here’s why it isn’t cutting President Clinton: So to summarize, the reason it isn’t cutting President Clinton is–

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Is because he’s an incumbent president about whom we know a lot and also in this climate, it has to be done extremely deftly. You have to make points that sort of challenge the idea that this president can really serve as an effective leader, while not causing people to be disgusted with you for saying these things, and of all Bob Dole’s virtues, one of them is not that kind of dexterity.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And it is somewhat new, the way the public is looking at these issues, isn’t it?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I think we’re saturated with scandal, don’t like it. We like to think that we can have people on whom we put trust and admire, words we hear a lot in coinage, and we don’t want to be down in the mud. There’s a side of us that we all like the scandal and juice, but the truth is I think we don’t like it, and you can see a reaction to it in this very campaign.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Thank you all very much.