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Campaign Lies and Flimflam

Even new lows in the distortion of truth may not bamboozle the voting public in 1982

Reagan, Daniel Gibbs, Storey Gymnasium, demonstrators, protests

Reagan supporter Daniel Gibbs stands outside Storey Gymnasium in where a group of 500 demonstrators protests Reagan policies in Cheyenne on March 2nd, 1981.

Jim Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty

The National Academy of Modern Political Communications normally announces the winners of its awards for creative campaign practices after the elections are over. This year, however, the awards committee has decided to make public the results before the voting so that no one will complain that its selections were influenced by the election returns. Here then, reported exclusively for our readers, are the winners of 1982.

Best Dirty Trick in a Nonelectronic Medium—Representative Cleve Benedict of West Virginia, who is running against the entrenched incumbent, Senator Robert Byrd. Everyone enjoyed a big laugh when one of Benedict’s supporters confronted the crotchety Byrd at a public appearance and presented him a white sheet with eyeholes, a lighthearted reminder that Byrd was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The winning touch was the little green alligator sewed on the Klan robe – a preppie Klansman for the Eighties. Byrd did not seem to get the joke, but the awards committee salutes Benedict’s campaign manager, Norm Rankin, who declared: “You’ve got to have fun in a campaign.”

Lighten up, Senator Byrd, it’s only politics.

Honorable mention goes to supporters of young Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who is challenging Senator John Stennis. The venerable Stennis is tottering toward his seventh term in Washington, and age is the only issue Barbour has going for him. When Stennis appeared at the Neshoba County Fair, an important political gathering in Mississippi campaigns, a bright banner suddenly unfurled over the stage: HAPPY 81ST BIRTHDAY. Later, some kids in the crowd jostled the ancient senator while a camera crew filmed his faltering steps. Barbour disowned the action and insisted that his campaign workers played no part in it.

Best Down-and-Dirty TV Commercial—Representative Robin Beard of Tennessee, whose campaign spots against Senator James Sasser are the talk of the industry. Everyone’s favorite is the dramatization that accuses Sasser of giving U.S. taxes to communist Cuba by voting for foreign aid. It shows a shipping crate labeled Foreign Aid that, when opened, is full of freshly wrapped bundles of American dollars. There’s a babble of foreign accents as greedy hands grab for our money. Then, a grinning Fidel Castro lookalike appears onscreen, lights his big cigar with a burning dollar bill and declares: “Muchas gracias, Señor Sasser.”

While there were many other worthy contenders in the ’82 campaigns, the awards committee felt that no one approached the consistent shabbiness of Congressman Beard’s TV advertising. “It appalls the senses,” declared the Nashville Banner in an editorial withdrawing its endorsement of the feisty young candidate.

Best Cheap Shot by Direct Mail—Representative David Emery of Maine. Emery is challenging Senator George Mitchell, who was appointed to the Senate in 1980 to fill a vacancy. Emery’s “Special Report to Maine Veterans” noted that he received an approval rating of ninety-two percent from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, while Mitchell received a rating of “zero.” The brochure deftly failed to mention that Mitchell wasn’t a senator during the period in which the VFW undertook its congressional ratings.

Most Ludicrous Flimflam in a Legislative Arena—the House Democrats, for their $1 billion “jobs bill.” This was the sort of election-year gimmickry that Democrats do better than anyone else, a last-minute bauble that supposedly would create 200,000 jobs — except that 10.8 million Americans are unemployed. This is intended to convince voters that the Democrats have “solutions.” The campaign cream, of course, came when the Republican Senate rejected the bill by sixty to thirty-seven, thereby allowing Democratic challengers to claim that Republican incumbents voted “no” on jobs.

In case some voters weren’t persuaded by this theater, the House Democratic Caucus simultaneously issued a twenty-three-page position paper on economic recovery that mimicks the Republican approach and rejects such short-term band-aid solutions as the jobs bill the Democrats had just proposed. This dipsy-doodle allowed Democratic candidates to preach a different sermon in every church: they could be progovernment or probusiness while, naturally, always being for the people.

Runner-up for legislative gimmicks, as usual, goes to the Republicans for their constitutional amendments for balanced budgets, school prayer and no more abortions. Some envious Democrats were suggesting wistfully that schoolchildren be forced to pray for a balanced budget. Or that Senator Jesse Helms get pregnant.

The Big Whopper Sweepstakes Trophy for Gross Lies and Distortions, Live and on Film – The winner is who else but the Gipper himself. Once again, the Whopper goes to the man who has won it so many times in the past Even though the president was not a candidate this year, the awards committee feels that he is entitled to retire the trophy permanently. Even the opposition party chairman, Charles Manatt, graciously conceded the prize when he dubbed Ronald Reagan “the Great Prevaricator.”

The committee’s citation lists fibs and mangled facts too numerous to recount in this space, but special mention is given the president’s “friendly old postman” TV spot. It depicts a sincere mailman delivering social-security checks to golden agers and reminding them that Ronald Reagan has protected social security from budget cuts. Even the old folks had to smile at that one. Everyone knows Ronald Reagan has tried to cut social security, and that he intends to try again, right after the elections.

The president’s tortured explanations of economics also produced a lot of chuckles. The committee’s also produced a lot of chuckles. The committee’s favorite was the radio broadcast during which Reagan denounced as “the most cynical form of demagoguery” any suggestion that inflation had been reduced by putting people out of work. A few days earlier, the new chairman of Reagan’s own Council of Economic Advisers had testified before a congressional committee on the same point: “The extremists among both the supply-siders and the rational-expectation monetarists who predicted that inflation would be reduced without raising unemployment have been decisively proved wrong,” said Martin Feldstein. Somebody needs to have a little talk with Feldstein.

Finally, throughout the campaign, the president’s slick footwork was admirably unblushing. In years past, Reagan has righteously denounced presidents who handed out federal boodle at election time, but this year Ronald Reagan was finally president himself—and it was he who was handing out grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development at campaign stops. Then there was the matter of the new fees, totaling $100 million, that the Reagan administration planned to collect from dairy farmers beginning October 1st in order to reduce the bloated cost of federal subsidies. The Department of Agriculture switched signals and decided not to start collections until December 1st. And, as unemployment continued to increase, the president suddenly waxed enthusiastic over a job-training bill that, in earlier versions, the White House had threatened to veto. Before long, the Gipper was complaining that Congress wasn’t moving fast enough on his jobs bill.

Clearly, this president wants to keep the fun in democracy. That’s the spirit that wins Whoppers. Sometimes, though not always, it also wins elections.

BUT SERIOUSLY, FOLKS. Even from my jaded perspective, I am prepared to conclude that the quality of campaign bilge actually improved in 1982. Not much, but a little. From my random sampling of political propaganda, there seems to be more straw in the mud. Voters can actually find a little more substance in the brickbats, a few facts that are true in the loosest sense, or at least a few good laughs.

Strangely enough, Ronald Reagan and the conservatives deserve credit for this modest improvement. For years, most Democrats could win by campaigning with boilerplate slogans and soft-focus footage of their candidates in shirt-sleeves, walking on beaches, petting their dogs and their children and sincerely hugging their wives. The message was simple: your congressman is not a pervert. Vote Democratic. Often, this was enough. Many Republicans used the same message, leaving off the patty label.

Then, Democrats got blamed—first, in 1978, and more decisively, in 1980—by Reagan and the New Right, which employed a vicious new weapon: issues. Hard, nasty issues that aroused passion among voters. Of course, there were distortions and outrageous claims, even lies, but I think that any thorough study of Reagan’s campaign advertising and the attack ads’ sponsored by New Right causes would have to conclude that the content focused more on such issues as abortion, the Panama Canal, national defense and runaway inflation – issues that were more powerful than the warm, fuzzy personality cameos.

While there was still a multitude of vaporous candidates in shirt-sleeves on TV this fall, the Democrats did try to harden up the messages. The material for attack was rich, given Reagan’s disastrous economic policies, though Democrats didn’t have nearly enough money to match the Republicans buying TV time. Perhaps to overcome their image as wheezing old liberal hacks, Democrats decided to play for laughs. Give the folks a chuckle or two over Reagan’s recession.

Their “trickle-down” commercial talks about tax cuts for the rich and shows champagne flowing into long-stemmed glasses while hardly a drop reaches the working-man’s tin cup. “You’ve got to ask yourself – just how much is trickling down to you lately?” a voice queries. The tin cup is practically empty. “That’s what we thought.”

Even Republicans laughed at the “elephant in the china shop” spots. A camera follows a GOP elephant lumbering clumsily through the aisles, smashing a plate labeled SOCIAL SECURITY and another labeled JOBS. Tension builds. Finally, the great beast tips over row after row of shelves of precious glassware. “Two years ago we trusted the Republicans to mind the store,” goes the voice-over. “The Republicans have made a mess of things.”

Some independent liberal groups were meanwhile trying to mimic the down-and-dirty tactics made famous by New Right groups like the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC). Pro-PAC, the progressives’ answer to creative mudslinging, took out a print ad attacking Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah for collecting so much campaign money from the oil industry: “When Orrin Hatch says he likes the Houston Oilers, he’s not talking about football,” it reads. An oil well gushes dollars. ProPAC, however, had only a modest budget compared with its right-wing adversaries.

A pro-nuclear-freeze group, Citizens for Common Sense in National Defense, went after hawks with an engaging TV spot that depicts a nuclear holocaust launched by computer error. That ad seems downright subtle compared to the antinuke spots broadcast by California governor Jerry Brown in his Senate race. Brown’s message seemed to be that if Californians didn’t vote for him, the Republicans would blow up their children.

The GOP marketing wizards, confronted with wretched reality, decided not to make jokes this year. In fact, after the friendly old postman wore out his usefulness, the GOP produced a series of pseudodocumentary TV ads in an artistic style that might be termed mock historical. Certainly, the content mocked history.

My favorite is “1954,” which begins gravely: “It was 1954, the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, Churchill was still prime minister, and the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress.” Since then, it’s all been downhill. Inflation. Debt. Federal spending. Until the Gipper came along. In another spot, a sidewalk consumer says “I don’t think we should go back” with the cinematic verity of a Preparation H commercial.

If Americans buy that version of recent history, they deserve whatever they get. For one thing, this tale of the thirty-year slide to ruin leaves out Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford – Republican presidents who served for sixteen of those thirty years. The era of the Fifties and Sixties, moreover, was the most prosperous in American history, and most folks would gladly trade in Reaganomics if we could somehow get it back. Anyway, nobody will accuse the president of running on nostalgia for the past. He’s running on antinostalgia.

The old nemesis of liberals, NCPAC, was still throwing body punches in 1982 – and was occasionally accused of landing below the belt – but even NCPAC seemed to have moderated its approach. The truly outrageous and genuinely funny ads of 1980 were replaced by less titillating discussions of voting records. NCPAC chairman Terry Dolan, who officially denied any moderation, conceded that a straight pitch may be more effective than elaborate minidramas. “Sometimes the cuteness gets in the way of the message,” Dolan said.

Incidentally, NCPAC gets the 1982 First Amendment Citation for defending free speech in politics. So many TV stations refused to run NCPAC commercials that Dolan’s group had to sue fourteen of them to get on the air. Frequently, the TV stations were intimidated by Democrats who complained in advance. “Here are these liberals who scream and holler when Jerry Falwell complains about TV shows, but this is the most blatant form of censorship,” Dolan complained. “This is as randy as it gets.”

Dolan has a point. Politics is one arena where the free marketplace is most essential, where everyone should be able to push his own message, however wrong or outrageous, without interference from government or anyone else.

After all, Lincoln was right: you can’t fool all the people all the time. If you don’t believe that, you don’t believe in democracy. I still do, despite my jokes at the expense of politicians.

In fact, I think that the 1982 elections will teach us some encouraging lessons about the limitations of political blarney. TV commercials, even with constant repetition, do not always persuade – if the audience sees contradictory realities in daily life. Commercials may drive people away from the product if the messages offend the truth and sufficiently irritate the viewers. For the record, the campaign technicians of both parties believe that the Republican money will drown out the Democrats and stave off heavy losses. I wouldn’t bet on it. Even the Republicans’ overwhelming advantage in campaign money and their artfully constructed TV ads will not save the GOP from a major defeat in the congressional elections. It figures. Detroit’s slick commercials can’t sell cars in a recession, and Reagan’s clever evasions can’t sell his failed economic policy.

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