Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Candidates, Media Confuse “Telling the Truth” with “Going Negative”

Ned Barnett ©2008

In the 1948 Presidential campaign, President Harry Truman famously said:

“I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think its hell.”

Republicans can be excused, perhaps, for forgetting this subtle-but-important difference between telling the truth and going negative, but Democrats who cite Truman as their strongest post-war President and something of a cultural icon ought to know better – or remember better.

This failure to discern the difference between “telling the truth” and “going negative” is coming into sharp focus in this campaign, since both Senator Obama and Senator McCain have publicly and repeatedly eschewed “negative” campaigning – an approach which is high-minded, but often impractical. This is especially a problem right now for Senator Obama, who is up against – in Senator Clinton – a real Chicago street-fighter. The Clintons have always been reputed to “take no prisoners,” and so far in this campaign is concerned, she has lived up (or lived down) to that reputation, as has her husband and chief surrogate, former President Bill Clinton.

It used to be that “truth” was a defense in political campaigns – “negative” campaigning (also called “dirty” campaigning) was limited to spreading lies and unfounded innuendo about your opponents. This dichotomy changed in 1988, when Vice President George H.W. Bush’s campaign picked up on “an attack” made against former Governor Michael Dukakis by Tennessee Senator (and fellow Presidential Candidate) Al Gore during the primary season. This “attack,” of course, while mishandled by Senator Gore, led to the Republicans’ perhaps decisively effective “Willie Horton” ads. Willie Horton was a convicted Massachusetts murder who – after being let out on a “weekend furlough” by then-Governor Dukakis – went on a murder-and-rape rampage in Maryland.

The ad was indisputably true; however, because Horton was black and his victims were white, the politically correct media jumped all over the Bush campaign for “negative attack ads” that “played the race card,” totally ignoring the fact that the charge was first made in a debate by Senator Al Gore. Facts didn’t matter – this ad “proved” that Republicans were closet racists, and this view – not the facts of Dukakis’s perhaps faulty judgment in furloughing dangerous murderers – became a major media issue. Bush was damned for his racism, and his campaign advisor, Lee Atwater was particularly tarred as a virulent racist of the first order.

As a sidebar (and in the spirit of full disclosure), I knew Lee Atwater and worked with him – while he was South Carolina state Republican Party chairman – on the 1976 Ford campaign. While he was not afraid to play hardball, I am absolutely certain that he was no racist. I know false these charges hurt him personally and deeply.

However, since “Willie Horton,” truth has no longer been a defense. An ad or speech or statement that calls an opponent to account is called an “attack ad” or characterized as “going negative” – when in fact, it’s often just reporting the truth. For instance, comparison ads (we’ve seen many of these in this election cycle) are deemed attack ads, even if they honestly compare two candidates’ relative positions. Romney was justly famous for his comparison ads, and he was seen as going negative EVEN when the ads were objectively true. Candidates have been pressured by an underlying “political correctness” movement – primarily based around scrutiny from a media that’s constantly looking for yet one more controversy – and it’s gotten to the point that some candidates recoil from any comparative ads or even comparative statements by their supporters.

For instance, John McCain has spent a great deal of time distancing himself from his own supporters. Some of this, such as his repudiation of a warm-up-act talk show host who introduced him in Cincinnati by railing against Senator Obama (and daring to use his middle name, which has in this election cycle become “off-limits”), may be justified. However, when Senator McCain publicly scolded a supporter who cracked a joke at Hillary Clinton’s expense at a recent pro-McCain town hall meeting (“if the phone rang at 3 a.m. and Cindy McCain answered it, at least she’d know where her husband was”) is probably taking this “kid-gloves” treatment too far. Senator McCain – the only real warrior in the campaign – is actually coming across as too civilized to fight, which may hurt him as he tries to project himself as the best-qualified candidate to fight a war against terrorists.

All the candidates ought to remember what Harry Truman said, and what American politicians used to believe – “I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think its hell.” Truly negative campaigning is beneath the office of the President, and unworthy of real candidates for that office – but telling the truth about opponents and letting the voters make up their mind has always been as American as apple pie. If it was good enough for “Honest Abe” and “Give ‘em Hell Harry,” it ought to be good enough for today’s Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates.

Remember, you heard it here first!