Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lies and more lies: the 10 dirtiest tricks in US electoral history

Blog_hstrange_2An already nasty race is getting even nastier with both parties trading allegations of voting irregularities and underhand tactics. Here, I take a look at the 10 dirtiest incidents in US electoral history - in no particular order.

Thomas Jefferson and James Callender

Jefferson385_2 The long and inglorious history of dirty tricks in US electoral politics stretches right back to 1800, in what was only the second contested presidential election. Vice-President Thomas Jefferson hired Scottish-born journalist and pamphleteer James Thomas Callender to slander his opponent, the incumbent president and formerly great friend, John Adams. In published writings, Callender accused Adams of being a “repulsive pedant” and “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman”. In return, Adams' camp called Vice President Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." The attacks sunk ever lower with Adams being labelled a criminal and Jefferson an atheist, but Jefferson’s smears-by-proxy were ultimately more successful with Callender convincing most Americans that Adams was set on attacking France, clinching the election for him.

However the tactics later backfired as Callender, after serving jail time for the slander of Adams, turned on Jefferson and began to train his attacks on him. Callender wrote in a series of articles that Jefferson had fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemings, and later, after that scandal ran its course, eventually blew over, exposed the President's attempt to seduce a married neighbor years earlier.

Benjamin Harrison and the Murchison letter

422pxbenjamin_harrisonHistorian Rick Shenkman claims that the first election in which the outcome was definitively altered by dirty tricks was in 1888, when Republican Benjamin Harrison launched a series of efforts to discredit incumbent President Grover Cleveland in the eyes of the all-important Irish community by painting him as in step with the hated British empire. After a failed attempt to force Cleveland to defend a treaty which would have defused a trading war but angered Irish voters, Republicans arranged for a party official in California to write to the British ambassador to the US in the guise of an Englishman, "Charles F. Murchison", inquiring as to London's preferred candidate. The ambassador, Sir Lionel Sackville-West, wrote back indiscreetly suggesting that Cleveland would probably be the best option. The Republicans published the letter two weeks before the vote and Cleveland duly lost the Irish vote, the state of New York and the election.

JFK and the Cook County controversy

Tricks2The 1960 was one of the first in which allegations of voter fraud seriously marred the election. Advisers to Richard Nixon challenged John F. Kennedy's victories in a number of states including Illinois - and thus in the whole election - claiming that in Cook County, the populous area including the city of Chicago, the polls were rigged to ensure a win for the Democrat. Investigations and recounts ensued in 11 states, continuing into the summer of 1961, but only resulted in the state of Hawaii being stripped from Nixon and awarded to Kennedy. To this day, there is no universally accepted version of the affair.

Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater

Tricks3In what has been described asone of the most corrupt elections in US history, Democratic incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson launched a series of corrosive attacks on his opponent, Barry Goldwater, setting up a group of political operatives named the "five o' clock club" to smear him ahead of the 1964 vote. The group distributed a Goldwater joke book, a children's colouring book featuring the Republican dressed in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan, fed misinformation to the press and wrote letters to columnists purporting to be from citizens terrified of a Goldwater presidency. They also sent a CIA agent, Edward E. Hunt, to infiltrate Goldwater's campaign as a volunteer and fed his plans and initiatives back to the White House, enabling it to preempt his every move.

Richard Nixon and the CRP

TricksIn the run-up to the election of 1972, the Republican incumbent established the Committee to Re-elect the President, a group which was ostensibly a fundraising outfit but was later found to have been involved in numerous shadowy and criminal activities including the Watergate scandal. In order to uncover incriminating material on Nixon's opponents, the organisation conducted a number of burglaries and illegal wiretapping operations, including the break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building which ultimately led to the unravelling of the Nixon presidency.

Lee Atwater, x2

As campaign consultant to Republican incumbent Floyd Spence in the 1980 congressional elections, Atwater instigated push polling in which fake pollsters claimed in calls to white voters that his Democratic challenger Tom Turnipseed was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and had been hooked up to “jumper cables” as a teenager undergoing electroshock therapy for depression. Later in a career founded on dirty electoral practices, he encouraged ads on behalf of 1988 Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush which linked Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis to the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer in Massachusetts who committed a rape while on weekend release, a policy supported by then-governor Dukakis - but in fact initiated by his Republican predecessor.

After being diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1990 Atwater converted to Catholicism and in an act of repentance wrote a number of public letters apologising to former opponents including Dukakis and Turnipseed. Writing to the latter, he expressed deep regret for the jumper cable incident in particular, saying it remained one of the low points of his life.

George W. Bush and McCain’s “lovechild"

Neil_news_george_bu_131727aIn the 2000 Republican primary campaign, then-governor of Texas George W. Bush hired Warren Tompkins to wipe out his opponent, John McCain. Tompkins and his team spread race-baiting rumours in South Carolina that McCain had secretly fathered a black lovechild (in fact his adopted Bangladeshi daughter Bridget). Bush also brought in Jeff Larson and his firm FLS-Connect to conduct robo-calls highlighting McCain’s "interracial child" and his wife Cindy’s addiction to prescription drugs.

At the time, McCain said of Larson and Tompkins that “there is a special place in hell for people like these.” He has since had a change of heart and hired Larson to run similar robo-calls against current presidential opponent Barack Obama, accusing the Democrat of “close” ties to former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, of having an “extreme leftist” agenda and not sharing American values. Last week McCain brought in Tompkins to advise him on tactics in the battleground state of North Carolina in the final days of the campaign.

Florida and the Supreme Court

The month-long dispute which blighted the 2000 election began on election night, when confusion erupted among news networks over who had won the state of Florida. Initially, the state was declared for Gore before the strongly Republican panhandle, one hour behind the eastern counties, had released its results. When the mistake was realised, the networks retracted that call before calling the state for Bush, but then retracted it again, declaring it too close to call. Gore then made a concession call to Bush, but rescinded it after learning just how close the vote was.

Though Bush won the initial count in Florida by some 2,000 votes, state law required a recount for such a close result, which reduced the Republican's margin to just 537 votes. A lengthy legal wrangle ensued and a manual recount ordered, but, amid time restrictions and disputes over methods of counting ballots, the case ultimately ended up in the Supreme Court. The court voted to halt the recount, allowing Florida's Republican Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, who had been Bush's campaign chair in the state, to certify the results in his favour.

A number of related controversies also tainted the Florida vote, including disputes over ballots on which chads had not been punched out correctly due to machine faults or confusing layouts. Hundreds of thousands of African-Americans - who tend to vote Democrat - were wrongly purged from the electoral roll as felons, and accusations of legal strong-arming and conflicts of interests abounded. To this day, many Democrats believe that the election was stolen from Al Gore.

John Kerry and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth

2pledge165_301488aAs the 2004 election approached, incumbent George W. Bush was struggling to fend off attacks on his weak military record from his Democratic opponent John Kerry, a recipient of numerous military honours for his service in Vietnam. But it was not long before a 527 group named the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth swept to the rescue. The organisation, formed specifically to oppose Kerry's candidacy, released a letter signed by some 250 Swift boat veterans claiming the Democrat had lied about his acts of heroism and taking issue with statements he had made in support of the anti-war movement following his return from the conflict. It also ran a series of ads and released a book labelling Kerry a liar and coward. It later emerged that only 16 of the veterans had ever served in the same division as Kerry and only one had been present during an incident for which he was decorated. That veteran, Larry Clayton Lee, said Kerry had earned his Silver Star but that based on conversations with other SBVT members had come to question his awards for other incidents. Some members later acknowledged that their motivation was less Kerry's record but his later statements against the war, while the Democrat's actual crew members dismissed their claims outright, but by that time, the damage had been done. So successfully, in fact, that the term "swiftboating" has entered the US political lexicon as a synonym for dirty tricks and smears.

2008 - the dirtiest campaign yet?

At385_391231gWell perhaps not. Butaccording to historian and author Joseph Cummins, it is certainly a contender. Allegations of underhand tactics have proliferated since the start of the primary race, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton exchanging allegations of racial smears and voting irregularities. Since Obama's nomination the contest has taken an even more vicious turn, with ongoing internet rumours that the African-American candidate is a secret Muslim, associates with terrorists and plans to push an extremist agenda from the White House. As detailed above, robo-calls are again being deployed to make the case, while McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, regularly paints Obama as anti-American, foreign and unpatriotic. In turn, the Democrat has accused his rival of being old, out-of-touch and erratic and raised questions about Palin's lack of experience, while liberal bloggers have accused the Alaskan governor of trying to ban books, having an affair with her husband's friend and lying about the parentage of her son. And as the election draws nearer, the familiar legal dance around voting registration and methods is once again in full swing. With two weeks to go, this already nasty contest could still get a great deal nastier.

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