Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOW on PBS
Civics & Politics The Environment Health Economics Social Issues Full Archive
NOW on Demand
Act NOW
Week of 1.4.08

Transcript: Dirty Politics 2008

BRANCACCIO: This year we are taking a close look at exactly how America selects its leaders and sets policy. We call it "Adventures in Democracy 2008".

We kick off our adventure aboard a legendary train, built back in the 1930's and used for whistle stop campaigning.

Travel with us to South Carolina now for a story about the dirty underbelly of politics—the smear campaigns, the lies, and the slurs. It's an approach that can tip elections. Brenda Breslauer produced our report.

BRANCACCIO: The best emblem of South Carolina politics may not be the capitol dome in Columbia. The best emblem of the rough brand of politics here may be this unconventionally dressed man.

SHEALY: It is well known that you better win South Carolina to have the momentum that you need to become president of the United States.

BRANCACCIO: For the last 30 years, Rod Shealy has been working as a campaign strategist in these parts. He ran Senator Bob Dole's campaign for president in South Carolina in 1988 and Elizabeth Dole's campaign in the state for the 2000 nomination. When it comes to politics, Shealy plays hard and not always above board. Or at least, that's how the old Rod Shealy used to be.

SHEALY: I myself am—am—have been called a reformed bad boy. I—I—I've been engaged in my share of negative campaigns over the years. Not lately, too old—to keep it up anymore.

BRANCACCIO: Before his "reformation," Shealy got up to some pretty amazing shenanigans in the name of getting his clients—mainly Republicans—elected. Check out this little stunt, to turn out conservative voters back in 1990, when Shealy was running the campaign of his sister for Lieutenant Governor. He paid 500 dollars to an out of work black fisherman to run in another contest on the same ballot.

BRANCACCIO: So you hired this gentleman, he happened to be African American.

SHEALY: It was not a part of the tactic. The—

BRANCACCIO: Didn't you photograph him in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign?

SHEALY: And—and that was simply because that's where he was. That's where—we filed the form, that's where—we had met. But, you know, that was not a part of the tactic. It was not a scare tactic.

I was attempting to turn out additional voters. Happens across the land.

BRANCACCIO: When the scheme was revealed, Shealy was convicted and fined for violating campaign laws.

SHEALY: I'm a big boy; I took my punishment, I paid my $500 fine. It has become a part of my legacy, for sure. I—let's put it this way: I never have to convince anybody that, yes, in fact I did used to be a bad boy.

BRANCACCIO: Shealy is the first to admit, he didn't invent this stuff. He studied at the knee of the South Carolina legend who transformed American politics: Lee Atwater...Ronald Reagan's brilliant campaign strategist.

SHEALY: He was a genius. Atwater was known as a—as a hard-nosed political operative. He knew how to run an attack-based campaign.

BRANCACCIO: After helping to engineer the Reagan revolution, Atwater went on to mastermind George Bush senior's successful campaign for president. It was a campaign noted for the nasty way it used race to clobber his opponent.

SOUND UP: "He allowed first degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison..."

BRANCACCIO: Think Michael Dukakis, think picture of a black man with a scary criminal record...Willie Horton, convicted murderer turned rapist and robber on a weekend pass. The famous Willie Horton ad was one of Lee Atwater's signature moments.

NAT SOUND: "Dukakis on crime..."

HUFFMON: The ghost of Lee Atwater hangs over South Carolina like the morning fog. Because these—the—this—you know, kind of harsh often racially charged politics still lingers in the air.

BRANCACCIO: Scott Huffmon teaches southern politics at Winthrop University in South Carolina.

HUFFMON: In modern times, no Democrat has won the presidency unless they have cracked the south.

BRANCACCIO: And with stakes that, politics here, Huffmon confirms, are not always polite.

HUFFMON: It's almost like an on-going soap opera. So, you know, instead of the Lehrer News Hour, we're much more accustomed to General Hospital politics.

BRANCACCIO: And this campaign season has not disappointed. There are email assaults traveling from inbox to inbox. Huffmon says he gets three to four a week. Mostly attacking Hillary Clinton.

HUFFMON: They accuse Hillary Clinton—of everything—literally everything from murder to lesbian affairs.

BRANCACCIO: For the record, she's not wanted for murder and she's been married for a very long time to this man.

Hillary Clinton is not the only one getting attacked by email missiles in South Carolina. There are anti-Mitt Romney emails and anonymous letters playing up his Mormon faith. Just last week a fake holiday card was sent to South Carolina Republicans, falsely claiming to be from the Romney family. It included a quote from a controversial Mormon passage endorsing polygamy, something the Mormon Church outlawed a century ago.

And then, there are internet blogs asking if Rudy Giuliani's wife hates cute, cuddly puppies because they say she worked decades ago for a surgical equipment company that killed dogs used to demonstrate products. And the list goes on...

But where do these negative stories originate, how do they spread, and can positive messages put out by campaigns possibly counter-act all this negative stuff traveling underground?

SHEALY: Your challenge as a—as a campaign is to damage your opponent without gettin' caught doin' it. And—you want the information out there, but you don't want to—s—to dirty yourself by bein' the guy that—that did it.

FOLKS: It—it's like the Wild West, it really is. There are no rules. Nobody's really safe from these kind of attacks.

BRANCACCIO: Thirty-three year old Will Folks should know. He is a blogger who is both commentator and trafficker in the ongoing chain of smears on the web. He's also a political consultant who helped run, among other South Carolina races, the successful 2002 campaign for Mark Sanford, the Republican Governor.

FOLKS: If I'm advisin' a candidate runnin' for office at any level today—my advice is buckle your chin strap and have your house in order. 'Cause they're comin' after you.

BUSH: "South Carolina has spoken..."

BRANCACCIO: Consider the South Carolina Republican Primary of 2000 when George W. Bush came from behind to beat John McCain. It's now considered one of the nastiest of modern times, a campaign marked by race-baiting and dirty tricks.

One of the most vicious of the attack strategies was a whisper campaign using a tactic known as "push polling." Phony pollsters call to sway voters with questions filled with false information.

HUFFMON: People calling and saying, Did you know John —McCain had a black baby out of wedlock? And, of course, John McCain has an adoptive daughter from, Bangladesh. But the fact that people felt that they could scare voters by pulling up the racial concepts of, he must have a black daughter. That tells you how much race is still central, even in the 21st Century.

FOLKS: You know, they—scorched the earth—to win that primary. Because they knew if they did not—win South Carolina, that John McCain would be the nominee.

BRANCACCIO: We spent time looking into who engineered the attacks on McCain in South Carolina. While no one's ever been able to offer proof, one name kept coming up again and again.

BRANCACCIO: Who do you think was the author of that attack on McCain? (LAUGH) Do you have any idea?

FOLKS: Oh, everybody knows who the author was—Warren Tompkins.

BRANCACCIO: Warren Tompkins?

FOLKS: Absolutely.

BRANCACCIO: Big political consultant in—

FOLKS: Very big political—

BRANCACCIO: —these parts.

FOLKS: —consultant.

BRANCACCIO: Who's he working for these days?

FOLKS: Mitt Romney.

BRANCACCIO: Warren Tompkins, another disciple of Lee Atwater, was Bush's chief strategist in the 2000 South Carolina primary. We reached out to Tompkins but he didn't return our phone calls. Bush campaign officials have always denied responsibility for the attacks. Will Folks says the trick is for consultants to insulate themselves so it doesn't come back on the candidate.

FOLKS: In South Carolina, these guys cover their tracks. And, you can, make somethin' look like it's, you know, "We had no connection with that guy. That guy is just a contract person." Or, you know, "Oh, yes, he's a supporter of ours, but we didn't authorize it."

BRANCACCIO: Here's an example from this campaign. In September, just as former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson was about to enter the presidential field, a website called phoneyfred.org appeared. It featured Fred Thompson dressed in a costume with labels like "Pimp Fred," "Moron Fred" and "Playboy Fred."

The "Phony Fred" website was taken down after the Washington Post traced it right back to South Carolina... to the firm run by Warren Tompkins who's working for Romney.

According to Harper's magazine, Tompkins claimed "an employee had conceived and run the site without his knowledge" and said in an email after the story broke "quite frankly, I'm very internet dysfunctional."

FOLKS: For Warren Tompkins to say, "Oh, I had nuthin' to do with this, I'm not Web savvy," well, it doesn't take—Web savviness to say, "Hey, you, put this on the internet."

BRANCACCIO: And nobody got fired over this?

FOLKS: Oh, no. You never get fired down here in South Carolina. Y—I mean, as—as long as you don't kill somebody durin' a campaign, they seem to let keep you keep doin' what you're doin'.

BRANCACCIO: To understand how this all works, we took a close look at the anatomy of a smear going around that Senator Barack Obama was a Muslim and has been hiding it. An attack designed to play into people's prejudices.

Here's the timeline: before Obama has even announced his candidacy, the story surfaces last January on the online magazine "Insight" a sister publication of the conservative Washington Times. Its title: 'Hillary's team has questions about Obama's Muslim background.' It claims that as a young boy in Indonesia Obama was educated in a madrassa, a type of Islamic religious school associated in recent years with teaching extremists.

Two days later, fox news picks it up and makes it a national TV story.

WOMAN ANNOUNCER: Ok, big news is coming out today about a possible presidential contender, Barrack Obama... something that he left out of the book that he wrote about his life growing up that apparently when he was a young boy he attended a Muslim school.

BRANCACCIO: Fox devotes four minutes on its morning news program to the story.

MALE ANNOUNCER VO: What have we heard about coming out of madrassa schools? This is huge!

BRANCACCIO: The next day a Clinton spokesman denies any connection to the story and calls the piece a "right-wing hit job".

Like many types of well-crafted disinformation, there is a grain of truth in some details. Obama did go to school in Indonesia as a young boy. The school is attended by Muslims. Since Indonesia is a predominately Muslim country. And Obama's middle name isn't Hubert or Horatio.

MALE ANNOUNCER ON CAM [FOX]: His middle name Hussein, well now that makes sense because his father was Muslim and named him Barrack Hussein Obama .

BRANCACCIO: Three days after the fox story, CNN runs a report that debunks the story. Obama's school was not a madrassa.

VAUSE: Well, Wolf, I've been to madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan and this school is nothing like that.

BRANCACCIO: That same week Obama addresses this on network television. The Obama campaign website now has an area called "fact check" that says "Obama has never been a Muslim, and is a committed Christian."

But the denials don't kill the story. Seven months later, the disinformation shows up in will folks' inbox in South Carolina from a trusted source.

BRANCACCIO: Your own mother?

FOLKS: My own mother. She's on—a number of these Christian—e-mail lists and so she forwards for me from time to time.

BRANCACCIO: The email accused Obama of becoming a Christian because it was "politically expedient" and warned people to "remain alert concerning Obama's... candidacy" because "the Muslims have said they plan on destroying us from the inside out."

BRANCACCIO: Just so I understand, what do you think the point of an e-mail like that was? Like, what would—

FOLKS: To smear.

BRANCACCIO: Smear?

FOLKS: Absolutely. There's no other reason to send e-mails like that, [unless your objective is to appeal to the lowest common denominator—] smearing using fear, in this case. Fear of terrorists. You know, fear of people whose lifestyles may be different.

BRANCACCIO: The intent here is to keep the story in circulation, says Rod Shealy.

SHEALY: The goal is to—get it out far enough that it eventually gets picked up by mainstream media and printed in the newspaper and reported on the evening news. Once it hits the nightly news—some people will believe it. Not everybody, but some people.

BRANCACCIO: And, in fact, will folks became part of the media machine propelling the story forward when he chose to write about it on his blog.

BRANCACCIO: It's quite a decision, 'cause it's furthering a rumor.

FOLKS: You know, the fact is it's something that people are talking about in South Carolina. And to me, that was newsworthy.

BRANCACCIO: And, of course, we are now talking about it on national television.

SHEALY: When you ask voters, they all say, "I—want campaigns to be more positive. I don't wanna just be hurling mud."

SHEALY: And—every campaign starts off with the ideals of—of—of being positive. But....People buy—people tune in to—to read bad news. People tune in to read controversy. And so you don't—you don't make the news if you're lobbing soft balls.

BRANCACCIO: But there may be another way to play and win and it's the one the campaigns showcase in South Carolina. It is spreading the word face to face to turn casual supporters into campaign workers and volunteers. Welcome to social networking, South Carolina style.

Fifty four year old Marilyn Armstrong is part of One Corps, a group of volunteers who use service projects, like this food bank outside of Charleston, to raise awareness for Democrat John Edwards. For the past six months, Armstrsong's been helping out.

MARILYN: John Edwards has got me comin' to the food bank now, every week. So, if he can do that to me, (LAUGHS) and get me out here, doin' it, then—he's my president.

BRANCACCIO: It's that kind of thinking the Edwards campaign is banking on.

John Edwards won the Democratic primary here when he ran for president in 2004. And after his second-place finish in Iowa this week, the South Carolina primary may be his last chance to break through early.

His campaign is targeting voters willing to role up their sleeves and make a difference. Teresa Wells is Edwards' communications director in the state.

WELLS: we are finding that there are a lot of undecided voters who come in, aren't sure that they're going to vote for Edwards, start volunteering, and get really involved in the campaign.

BRANCACCIO: Barack Obama's campaign, which just gained a definitive win in Iowa, has organized its network in South Carolina around beauty salons, a central meeting place for, among others, black women in South Carolina.

BIRD: You go to church and peo—that's where you get the good. You go to the prisons, that's where you get the bad. You go to the barber shop, that—and the beauty salon, that's where you get the real.

BRANCACCIO: Jeremy Bird is the Obama South Carolina field director who helped put together the strategy.

BIRD: If People can go in there and sell cologne, and go in there and sell tee-shirts. Why can't you go in there and talk about Barack Obama?

CHAMPAIGN: 11:58 when you are at the beauty shop or barber salon, I mean, that's what you do! I mean I get my hair done every two weeks or so. You go and talk about these things. You talk about your day was like, you talk about the issues that are important to you. You talk about the election. Who you are voting for and why.

BRANCACCIO: Twenty-two year old Lauren Champaign grew up here, in the the coastal area around Charleston known as the "low country".

LAUREN: My name is Lauren Champagne (PH). I'm with Senator Barack Obama's campaign here in the low country.

BRANCACCIO: Today she visits some salons on John's Island a rural area outside Charleston.

CHAMPAIGNE: So, are ya'll gonna be—votin' for 'em in January?

BROWN: Yes, I am.

CHAMPAGNE: You are?

BROWN: I am.

CHAMPAGNE: Oh, wonderful, wonderful.

NELSON: Well, I—I do like Obama. But also kind of leaning towards Hillary.

HAM: But I'm for Hillary. I'm sorry.

HAM: She's a woman and I'm a woman. A woman can do it better.

BRANCACCIO: Champaign deferred law school at Georgetown to work for the Obama campaign.

CHAMPAIGN: To me Barack Obama represents every single thing that people are telling me I can't be. As an African American female, for me to say I have political aspirations is saying a lot, in United States of America...and to see this man to be able to reach that height...I said it is possible.

LAUREN: We don't want you voting for him because you know he's black, or because he looks good. But because he's the best candidate, and he really is.

BRANCACCIO: African Americans make up as much as half of the Democratic primary voters in South Carolina, and more black women vote than men. That makes the beauty shop strategy a smart way to go, says political scientist Scott Huffmon.

HUFFMON: They are the prize of this election. So, how better to—to get their attention than—front a campaign that seems to be aimed specifically at them?

BRANCACCIO: Hillary Clinton, who's currently running neck and neck with Obama in South Carolina, is using a more traditional, top down approach. The campaign is also in beauty shops and it's also focusing on endorsements at senior levels. In fact, the head of a national trade association for beauty shops serves as a Clinton campaign volunteer in South Carolina.

And targeting voters through social networks is by no means just for Democrats.

Four hours north of Charleston, clear across the state, the campaign of Mike Huckabee, former Republican Governor of Arkansas and Baptist minister, is reaching out to women in the conservative area of Greenville. Here they gather to chat not in beauty salons, but over tea and cucumber sandwiches. Who's in attendence on this November day?

HAMILTON: Umm, I'd probably say the movers and shakers of the South Carolina Republicans.

BRANCACCIO: Joan Hamilton is hosting a tea party at her house to help the Huckabee campaign tap into this conservative stronghold.

JANET HUCKABEE: Hi I'm Janet Huckabee.

BRANCACCIO: The guest of honor is Mrs. Huckabee.

JANET HUCKABEE: "I want to thank the Hamilton's for opening their home and hosting this event..."

HUFFMON: The first ladies' tea for Huckabee is kind of a nod to the old style social politics. It's—politicking in a social setting. And it—it kind of harkens back to the old informal social networks of how things got done—you know, around the table, not on the stump.

BRANCACCIO: The Huckabee campaign scored an upset victory in Iowa Thursday by doing exactly what it's been doing here: appealing to so-called "values voters".

POE: We are pro-life. Uhh, as the saying goes, we are God-fearing. You know it is the Bible belt. We're kind of like the buckle in the bible belt.

WARREN: Just because they're Republican they really have to do something to fit the bill. Rather than just have a R by their name.

BRANCACCIO: And how about the Conservative credentials of the Republican candidates? Take former NY mayor Rudy Giuliani for example.

LADY AT EVENT: There's that concern being from New York and also I know he's done a lot to clean up the mafia. And his family doesn't have anything to do with him

BRANCACCIO: But it's not always tea and crumpets in Greenville. Less than a month after the tea party, Huckabee, himself was in the area for a fundraising event. Outside, the cars of his supporters got papered with this flyer seemingly torn from the Lee Atwater playbook.. The flyer talked about Huckabee's role in freeing "a rapist turned murderer" and raised the specter of race with a comment that Huckabee "cherishes diversity in culture." They flyer asks, "is something wrong with our Southern Christian culture?"

The flyers were signed "Lynchburg Christian Students for the Truth." -Who ever they are. When we sent an email to the address at the bottom of the flyer we reached someone who was not a student. We couldn't get a straight answer from him about whether the so-called group was affiliated with any campaign.

So how do voters in 2008 make sense of all the negative messages swirling around amidst the official word from campaigns? Phaze 2 is a beauty salon in South Carolina's capital. It's the kind of place where the women come together to sort it all out.

BRANCACCIO: What do you do to be sure that you yourself are not a victim of—of political information that is just really made up?

BUTLER: You have to know when to tune things out. First, you can investigate. And remember, this is politic, okay. You're not gonna get the straight answer right away from the poli—politicians.

BRANCACCIO: Still, the disinformation is inescapeable in South Carolina.

LADY IN BEAUTY SHOP: There was an email that came in my email. And it had a picture of three of candidates, Obama, the—two other—other candidates, and it looked like they were doing the Pledge of Allegiance. And the little write up underneath said, "How can he run the country when he doesn't do the pled—Pledge of Allegiance?"

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, he didn't have his hand over his heart.

LADY IN BEAUTY SHOP: He didn't have his hand over his heart, right.

BRANCACCIO: I've seen this picture.

She's talking about this online photo which has been making the rounds on email and has been picked up by the blogs. The emails show this picture and says that Obama—quote: "....refused to not only put his hand on his heart during the pledge of allegiance, but refused to say the pledge." Unquote.

LADY IN BEAUTY SHOP: And—and it—it really raised my eyebrow, and I—and I didn't know where to go to verify it. So I just kinda put it on a shelf. I—I didn't—I didn't necessarily believe it, but I didn't dismiss it.

BRANCACCIO: Turns out none of it is true. The photo was taken during the national anthem, not the pledge.

Even so, conservative blogs picked up the story to question Obama's patriotism and insist that he still should have had his hand raised.

So what's next? South Carolina's Republican primary is January 19th, the Democratic one January 26th; there's plenty of time for more mischief.

SHEALY: When you're limping out of Iowa or New Hampshire, and you head to South Carolina, you pull out all the stops.

BRANCACCIO: Old pros like Shealy are betting that things will become more negative as the dates get closer.

BRANCACCIO: Do you have regrets about some of your tactics in the past?

SHEALY: I should, shouldn't I?

BRANCACCIO: But it is worth noting that the godfather of the attack campaign, Lee Atwater, wouldn't approve of what's likely to come. Atwater was stricken with brain cancer soon after his 1988 election victory. He came to regret the Willie Horton thing and other vicious tactics he popularized. As he neared the end of his life, Atwater wrote "my illness helped me to see what is missing in society is what is missing in me, a little heart a lot of brotherhood."

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From aboard the whistle stop train, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week