Political Attack Ads - They're Back
BOSTON — AT this point in the 1992 presidential campaign it seems hard to remember that just a few months ago many hoped this year would see the demise of so-called "negative" campaigning.
According to those who held this view, voters were so turned off by negative TV ads in the 1988 campaign, especially Republican ads featuring the Willie Horton case, that they would not stand for it again. But many who follow politics closely doubted that negative ads would disappear. For one thing, although the voters claim to detest such advertising, for years poll after poll has shown that attacks by one candidate against another, whether in debates, speeches, or TV ads, can be a determining factor in
how people vote.
Negative campaigning is hardly a new factor in American politics. In fact it is one of the most time-honored, if unsavory, traditions of presidential campaigns.
Almost all Americans today revere such presidents as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, but in their day they were unpopular in large regions of the country. Yankee Federalists reviled Jefferson as a slave owner and friend of the French. Democrats in the 1860 campaign made racist slurs against Lincoln because he opposed the extension of slavery outside the South.
Candidates' personal moral failings, real or imagined, have often figured in negative campaigning. Grover Cleveland's opponents tried to make an issue over his illegitimate child, coining the rhyme, "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha."
In modern elections, negative campaigning and advertising have played significant roles, and both parties have slung their share of mud. In 1952, opponents of Republican vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon tried to make an issue out of a questionable campaign fund he drew on for certain political expenses, but he beat it back with his famous "Checkers" speech.
The 1960 campaign featured a particularly bitter primary fight between Democrats Hubert Humphrey and John Kennedy in West Virginia: Kennedy supporters claimed falsely that Mr. Humphrey had tried to avoid the draft in World War II, while Humphrey charged Mr. Kennedy with trying to buy the presidency.
In 1964, President Johnson's campaign ran a famous ad interposing footage of a charming little girl in a field of flowers with shots of a nuclear bomb exploding. The implication, which was not very subtle, was that Republican Barry Goldwater could not be trusted with the nuclear trigger. A 1968 Hubert Humphrey ad showed the words "Spiro Agnew for Vice President?," with the voice-over of a man laughing hysterically. This was followed by the words, "it would be funny, if it weren't so serious."
In the 1984 Democratic primaries, Walter Mondale borrowed a phrase from a fast-food commercial - "where's the beef?" - to defuse a potent challenge from Gary Hart. And in 1988, the Democrats were attacking each other well before George Bush's campaign lit into Michael Dukakis. Mr. Dukakis's chief adviser, John Sasso, engineered the demise of Dukakis rival Joseph Biden by demonstrating with video tapes that Senator Biden had lifted portions of his stump speech from British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock .
So now we have Jerry Brown charging that Bill Clinton has funneled money to his wife's law firm, Clinton charging that Paul Tsongas is an enemy of labor unions, and Tsongas retorting that Clinton is unelectable because of questions about his character. On the GOP side, Pat Buchanan has all but accused President Bush of being pornographer in chief because of controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts. Bush has fired back that a man who drives a foreign car is not qualified to be president.
Seen in this light, 1988 was not such an aberration, after all. And if one wonders what the fall campaign is going to be like, one need only study its outline in this spring's negative campaigning.