Down and dirty: the slimiest tricks make the best stories.
Taken aback, Johnson's campaign manager protested, "But Lyndon, we can't say that! It's not true!" To which Johnson replied, "Of course not, but let's make the bastard deny it."
LBJ was nothing if not the consummate politician, and that includes his hardball tactics. The fact is, dirty tricks have always been part of the political landscape in this country--and more than most of us realize, thanks to the furtive ways candidates and their surrogates go about sticking it to others.
One Republican consultant tells the story of how he had to run from the law while overseeing a get-out-the-vote operation. On the eve of a close election, he was directing local college students during an all-night effort to paper the town with GOTV fliers when he got shocking news: police were knocking on his friends' doors, trying to track him down. A "witness" had claimed to see him wheeling recklessly down Main Street in broad daylight, dangling out of a car window and vandalizing yard signs.
It was not only a lie, says the consultant, but a sinister plot to cripple his GOTV operation by sticking him in jail for the night. So he one-upped his foes by setting up camp behind the police station--the one place they'd never look for him--and spent the rest of the night quarterbacking the effort using a two-way radio.
Another consultant has the story of a dirty trick involving union employees of the U.S. Postal Service.
"One local campaign in particular involved us sending out about 15 different pieces of mail, which started out as positive, introductory pieces, but then evolved into more comparative (or negative) information about our very pro-union opponent," says the consultant. "Once the mailings went negative, they stopped being delivered." The mail--which could only be moved on wooden pallets with forklifts--was finally discovered "misplaced" under a tarp outside the office of the facility supervisor, who happened to be an active member of a union supporting the other candidate.
Deborah Yackley, a Postal Service spokeswoman, dismisses any suggestion that this type of thing happens regularly. "Around election time, politicians complain about some pieces not reaching people on time," she says. "But there are so many things that can go wrong, including not dropping the mail in time or using wrong addresses--it's really about one-hundredth of one percent that gets lost."
You'll often get the rawest political subterfuge when a race is excruciatingly close. Maine state Sen. John Martin served as the powerful Democratic Speaker of the House for nearly two decades--until he was forced to resign during a close election recount. It seems his chief of staff was found in the middle of the night, jamming ballots into ballot boxes. According to the night watchman who discovered him, Martin's aide had infiltrated the supposedly secure ballot room by wriggling through a tiny window in the elections office.
Sometimes the dirty tricks are especially creative, as in the case of the two Jesses. U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. has represented Illinois' 2nd District since 1995. But in 2002, Democratic primary voters found themselves in the confusing position of choosing between the incumbent and another candidate also named Jesse L. Jackson. The challenger, a 68-year-old retired truck driver, had never before run for public office or expressed any interest in doing so. Rep. Jackson smelled a rat, and his challenger ultimately dropped out of the race. But the congressman could never pin the job on his political nemeses.
And then there's the still relatively new frontier of online trickery. With a few mouse clicks, people can easily brandish hideous accusations that a candidate or close relative is a wife-beater, neo-Nazi, cross-dresser, or a member of any other politically disqualifying constituency.
One way to do this is through imposter websites, which are all the rage right now. On first blush they appear to support a candidate, but actually mislead readers or simply mock the candidate. One particularly amusing site was the now-defunct Fred Thompson Forum. The site's comment board was filled with "supporters" who sarcastically dismantled the very premise of Thompson's candidacy while subtly injecting pro--Ron Paul propaganda. Take this posting, for instance, by a supposed Thompson fan: "That's a good post Nancy. It's funny but I never really looked into Ron Paul, but maybe it's time I do."
Voters clueless enough to fall for such deception probably don't absorb most of their political news online to begin with, making the impact of such sites questionable. But elections can be won and lost on low-level sabotage. And as politicians like LBJ have discovered, hardball tactics aren't necessarily off-limits--as long as you can get away with them.
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|Title Annotation:||Briefing Room|
|Publication:||Campaigns & Elections|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2008|
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