Friday, August 22, 2008

Twice The Shame, McCain's Clear Cowardice

That McCain was more shaken up by the South Carolina voters in the 2000 GOP primary being upset with his ad tying Bush Jr to Clinton, instead of the "anonymous" attacks on his own adopted daughter Bridget, and then made peace with those same scumbags who slimed her, all for political gain, shows McCain does not have the character, integrity or honor to be President. The full picture comes from two articles, one about the attacks on his daughter, the other about losing the 2000 SC Republican primary.

The anatomy of a smear campaign

By Richard H. Davis | March 21, 2004

Every presidential campaign has its share of hard-ball political tactics, but nothing is more discomforting than a smear campaign. The deeply personal, usually anonymous allegations that make up a smear campaign are aimed at a candidate's most precious asset: his reputation. The reason this blackest of the dark arts is likely to continue is simple: It often works.

The premise of any smear campaign rests on a central truth of politics: Most of us will vote for a candidate we like and respect, even if we don't agree with him on every issue. But if you can cripple a voter's basic trust in a candidate, you can probably turn his vote. The idea is to find some piece of personal information that is tawdry enough to raise doubts, repelling a candidate's natural supporters.

All campaigns do extensive research into their opponent's voting record and personal life. This so-called "oppo research" involves searching databases, combing through press clips, and asking questions of people who know (and preferably dislike) your opponent. It's not hard to turn up something a candidate would rather not see on the front page of The Boston Globe.

It's not necessary, however, for a smear to be true to be effective. The most effective smears are based on a kernel of truth and applied in a way that exploits a candidate's political weakness.

Having run Senator John McCain's campaign for president, I can recount a textbook example of a smear made against McCain in South Carolina during the 2000 presidential primary. We had just swept into the state from New Hampshire, where we had racked up a shocking, 19-point win over the heavily favored George W. Bush. What followed was a primary campaign that would make history for its negativity.

In South Carolina, Bush Republicans were facing an opponent who was popular for his straight talk and Vietnam war record. They knew that if McCain won in South Carolina, he would likely win the nomination. With few substantive differences between Bush and McCain, the campaign was bound to turn personal. The situation was ripe for a smear.

It didn't take much research to turn up a seemingly innocuous fact about the McCains: John and his wife, Cindy, have an adopted daughter named Bridget. Cindy found Bridget at Mother Theresa's orphanage in Bangladesh, brought her to the United States for medical treatment, and the family ultimately adopted her. Bridget has dark skin.

Anonymous opponents used "push polling" to suggest that McCain's Bangladeshi born daughter was his own, illegitimate black child. In push polling, a voter gets a call, ostensibly from a polling company, asking which candidate the voter supports. In this case, if the "pollster" determined that the person was a McCain supporter, he made statements designed to create doubt about the senator.

Thus, the "pollsters" asked McCain supporters if they would be more or less likely to vote for McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate child who was black. In the conservative, race-conscious South, that's not a minor charge. We had no idea who made the phone calls, who paid for them, or how many calls were made. Effective and anonymous: the perfect smear campaign.

Some aspects of this smear were hardly so subtle. Bob Jones University professor Richard Hand sent an e-mail to "fellow South Carolinians" stating that McCain had "chosen to sire children without marriage." It didn't take long for mainstream media to carry the charge. CNN interviewed Hand and put him on the spot: "Professor, you say that this man had children out of wedlock. He did not have children out of wedlock." Hand replied, "Wait a minute, that's a universal negative. Can you prove that there aren't any?"

Campaigns have various ways of dealing with smears. They can refute the lies, or they can ignore them and run the risk of the smear spreading. But "if you're responding, you're losing." Rebutting tawdry attacks focuses public attention on them, and prevents the campaign from talking issues.

We chose to address the attacks by trying to get the media to focus on the dishonesty of the allegations and to find out who was making them. We also pledged to raise the level of debate by refusing to run any further negative ads -- a promise we kept, though it probably cost us the race. We never did find out who perpetrated these smears, but they worked: We lost South Carolina by a wide margin.

The only way to stop the expected mud-slinging in 2004 is for both President Bush and Senator Kerry to publicly order their supporters not to go there. But if they do, their behavior would be the exception, not the rule.

Richard H. Davis is president of the Reform Institute and a partner in Davis Manafort, a political consulting firm. He was a fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics in 2002. He was campaign manager for John McCain in 2000 and has worked in every presidential campaign since 1980.

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

October 19, 2007

The Long Run

Confronting Ghosts of 2000 in South Carolina


CHARLESTON, S.C. — When Senator John McCain and his wife campaign in South Carolina these days, people pull them aside to apologize for what happened during the presidential primary here in 2000.

With its early date, Southern location and reputation for road testing conservative credentials, the South Carolina primary is a proving ground for any Republican who longs to be president.

But as Mr. McCain seeks the Republican nomination again, the state is also a painful symbol of the brutality of American politics, the place that derailed his 2000 bid and, ultimately, helped reshape him into the candidate he is today.

“He would tell you he’s the same guy and they’re over it and I think on many levels they are,” said John Weaver, Mr. McCain’s former chief political strategist. “But it changes you.”

A smear campaign during the primary in February 2000 here had many in South Carolina falsely believing that Mr. McCain’s wife, Cindy, was a drug addict and that the couple’s adopted daughter, Bridget, was the product of an illicit union. Mr. McCain’s patriotism, mental well-being and sexuality were also viciously called into question.

In the years that followed, many around Mr. McCain said, the South Carolina ghosts were not easily exorcised for Mr. McCain or the people close to him. Just a few months ago, at the onset of this campaign, Bridget, now 16, summoned Mr. McCain’s aides and asked them to explain in detail what had happened in South Carolina and to give assurances that it would not happen again.

Mrs. McCain was also unsure about another run. The ultimate decision was in her hands, she said, and she was deeply influenced by the feelings of Bridget, who only learned about the events of 2000 when she Googled herself last year.

“She was a very important part of the process in deciding if we were going to run,” Mrs. McCain said. “She wanted to know the whole history of it.”

On the campaign bus, Mrs. McCain spoke recently of the people from across South Carolina who had made a point of apologizing to her about the pain her family endured in 2000.

As the McCains traveled throughout the state that year, they began to feel, aides said, as if they were being pelted by hail from an underground whispering campaign of unknown origin — a telephone call from a push pollster here, a nasty anonymous flier there — that they could barely keep pace with each attack.

“But we’re past that,” Mrs. McCain said, catching her husband’s eye. “We’ve moved on.”

Mr. McCain, in a recent interview, said that after losing the South Carolina primary he felt sorry for himself and was angry.

“You know, How could this happen? Woe is me!” Mr. McCain said. “Then, after a couple of days, I thought, Look, I’m the senator from Arizona; the people of Arizona expect me to represent them in the Senate, not feel sorry for myself because of something that happened in a political campaign.”

In his efforts both to fight back here in 2000 and to reconcile his loss to George W. Bush, Mr. McCain saw his reputation as a reformer and an outsider — one he had solidified in his stunning victory in the New Hampshire primary just weeks before — lacerated.

The bruising episode left him rancorous toward Mr. Bush, yet schooled in what it takes to win. Mr. McCain fell into a “very dark place,” in the words of one acquaintance, re-emerging as a more pragmatic, traditional Republican who now regularly reaches out to many of Mr. Bush’s allies, speaks comfortably to religious conservatives and has all but abandoned the maverick story line of 2000.

“He regrouped, and he dug real deep to figure out how to make the best of that situation,” said the acquaintance, Ed McMullen, who heads a South Carolina public policy group.

Several top campaign aides cited a single moment that marked a turning point in the South Carolina campaign, and in Mr. McCain himself. In an effort to fight back, the McCain campaign had gone negative, broadcasting a television advertisement that accused Mr. Bush of twisting the truth “like Clinton,” a reference to President Bill Clinton.

At a town-hall-style meeting in Spartanburg after the advertisement ran, a woman stood up, her voice shaking. She recalled how her 13-year-old son had received a phone call from a push pollster calling Mr. McCain a liar and a cheat.

“‘A man got on the phone and talked about how dishonest you were,’" Mr. Weaver recalled her saying. “‘My son had admired you, and now he doesn’t know what to believe.’”

Afterward, on the bus, Mr. McCain, who was shaken by how negative a turn the primary had taken, instructed his staff to pull the negative advertisements and “stop trying to defend ourselves,” Mr. Weaver said.

“We tried to talk him out of this,” Mr. Weaver said. “But John was so impacted by that woman’s comments, we just did it.”

Nancy Snow, a volunteer on the McCain campaign, was at that meeting, too, and remembered seeing the life drain from Mr. McCain’s face.

Ms. Snow said of Mr. McCain’s expression: “He looked like he felt terrible, and terrible for that boy, because he knew he had so many young people supporting him before that. It was kind of like the air had gone out of the room.”

In the process, Mr. McCain changed from an underdog Republican seemingly determined to remake his party in his own image — one that would be divorced from religiousness and without dogmatic socially conservative notions — to a candidate who now claims that he prefers a Christian in the White House.

Right after his bitter loss in 2000, Mr. McCain stood before an audience in Virginia and said defiantly: “We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson. We are the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the party of special interests. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones.”

The latter was a reference to Bob Jones University, where Mr. Bush had kicked off his South Carolina campaign and which, at the time, did not permit interracial dating on its campus.

Last year, by contrast, Mr. McCain said he would consider speaking at Bob Jones University. Further, while Mr. McCain denounced Jerry Falwell in 2000 as one of the United States’ “agents of intolerance,” he eagerly accepted Mr. Falwell’s invitation last year to be the graduation speaker at Liberty University, which Mr. Falwell founded.

And Mr. McCain, who always seemed uncomfortable in 2000 making statements about his own religious beliefs, recently told a reporter he would prefer a Christian as president of the United States over someone of a different faith, saying the affiliation would be “an important part of our qualifications to lead.”

As the South Carolina primary loomed in February 2000, aides to both Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush were regrouping from the outcome of the contest on Feb. 1 in New Hampshire. Mr. McCain won by an astonishing 18 points.

The Bush team, stung by the New Hampshire blowout, knew that South Carolina could not be lost, and while the McCain campaign was celebrating, the Bush team was shifting into high gear.

Even as Mr. McCain’s plane was aloft over the state from New Hampshire, Bush supporters had taken to the airwaves, accusing Mr. McCain of having accomplished little as a senator and suggesting he was out of step with conservative South Carolina.

“I remember thinking,” said Roy Fletcher, who was Mr. McCain’s deputy campaign manager, “these people knew they were going to get their butts pounded and they already had this attack planned.”

Evidently unnerved, the McCain campaign stumbled. Addressing the issue of the use of the Confederate battle flag — a subject of passionate debate in South Carolina — Mr. McCain vacillated. He called the flag “offensive” and a “symbol of racism and slavery,” but later backed off those remarks, referring to it as “a symbol of heritage,” the same language flag supporters used in explaining why it flew over the statehouse.

“I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary,” Mr. McCain later conceded. “So I chose to compromise my principles.”

Perhaps most significantly, though, an underground campaign was bubbling all around.

People in some areas of South Carolina began to receive phone calls in which self-described pollsters would ask, “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”

It was a reference to Bridget, who was adopted as a baby from an orphanage in Bangladesh and is darker skinned than the rest of the McCain family. Richard Hand, a professor at Bob Jones University, sent an e-mail message to “fellow South Carolinians” telling recipients that Mr. McCain had “chosen to sire children without marriage.”

Literature began to pepper the windshields of cars at political events suggesting that Mr. McCain had committed treason while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, that he was mentally unstable after years in a P.O.W. camp, that he was the homosexual candidate and that Mrs. McCain, who had admitted to abusing prescription drugs years earlier, was an addict.

“You had a sense of besiegement daily,” said Mark Salter, a longtime aide to Mr. McCain.

The McCain team had trouble nailing down the origin of the dirt.

“One time in Hilton Head, we chased these punks down the block who were handing them out,” said State Representative James H. Merrill, the Republican state majority leader, “and when we got to them and asked them where they got them, they said some guy in a red pickup truck said, ‘Hey do you wanna make $100?’”

Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s political adviser, and the entire Bush team strongly denied involvement, though it was clear Mr. Bush was the beneficiary of the campaign. When the McCain camp did fight back, it chose Mr. Bush as the target — and a method that backfired.

After promising a positive campaign, Mr. McCain’s campaign put together two negative advertisements, including the one accusing Mr. Bush of twisting the truth “like Clinton.” The advertisement offended many Republicans in the state, who considered a comparison to Mr. Clinton, then president and unpopular among Republicans here, beyond the pale.

“We pulled the pedestal right from under him,” recalled Dan Schnur, a spokesman for the campaign in 2000. “That negative ad turned him into just another career politician. Once we took that halo off of him, there was no way to get it back.”

Charlie Condon, a former South Carolina attorney general who supported Mr. Bush in 2000 and is now co-chairman of Mr. McCain’s South Carolina committee, said the downward spiral the contest took was not surprising.

“Our primaries have a way of doing that,” Mr. Condon said. “There is a tradition of it, it is accepted behavior, and frankly it works.”

He added, “There are no regrets about 2000. To this day I don’t have one. If someone did those things, shame on them. But I did see that there was a need for bringing up issues.”

Michael Cooper contributed reporting.



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