Winning At All Costs: Dirty Tricks in American Politics

“You know it’s s really a shame how they did that, man.”

It is January 1989. My Grandma is on the phone. I am unsure who she is talking to, but I know who she is talking about. The man in question is Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who’d lost the presidential election to George H.W. Bush the previous fall. As a child, I did not understand all the nuances of the 1988 election. Bush’s surname was easier to pronounce; Dukakis was more exciting. Beyond that, I knew that Bush served as VP for President Ronald Reagan.

My elders, Grandma, in particular, loathed Reagan. The mention of his name alone elicited rolled eyes and sucked teeth. They didn’t express the same level of disdain towards Bush, yet there was no chance he would get their vote. Displeased with the past eight years of “trickle-down economics,” they didn’t want to risk continuing the policy under Reagan’s former VP. Governor Dukakis was their candidate.

Governor Dukakis was my elder’s preferred candidate, but he would not become the 41st President. Georg H.W. Bush won the 1988 election easily, racking up 426 electoral votes to Dukakis’ pitiful 111. Though the Dukakis campaign made multiple mistakes, one key element of Dukakis’s defeat was out of their control: the infamous Willie Horton ad.

In September 1988, the commercial highlighted crimes committed by Massachusetts convict William Horton in 1987. Sentenced to life imprisonment after a 1974 murder conviction, Horton was released on a weekend furlough in June 1986. Horton would go on a subsequent crime spree and rape a woman multiple times. Horton’s mug shot appears in the ad after the narrator compares Bush and Dukakis’ stances on crime. The not-so-subtle implication is that Dukakis’ view on crime led to Horton’s abhorrent attack.

The Willie Horton that aired in September 1988 and the “Revolving Door” ad that aired subsequently in October led to outrage and controversy. Civil rights activists such as Jesse Jackson complained the ad played on and stoked long-standing racial animosity and fear. The question of whether the ads were ethical or racist would be debated for years to come, but their effectiveness could not be questioned. Whether one felt the ads went too far, no one could deny the obvious: the ads worked. Even my Grandma, who thought blaming Dukakis for Horton’s actions was shameful, understood that. American politics was undergoing a metamorphosis. Winning a campaign was the goal, regardless of the cost. The antics deployed by pro-Bush elements in 1988 could be justified as a necessary attack against the other party. But twelve years later, a Republican would become the victim of mudslinging allegedly launched by a rival in his party.

The Clinton Era was coming to an end as the new millennium approached. Like George H.W. Bush before him, Vice President Al Gore hoped to fill the shoes of the President that preceded him. Gore did not have the magnetism and commanding presence of Clinton. The Democratic establishment unified around him, nonetheless. The situation on the Republican side, however, was quite different.

Two strong candidates emerged among the initially crowded GOP field: Governor George W. Bush of Texas and Senator John McCain of Arizona. As the son of a former President, George W. Bush enjoyed a high level of support within the party. However, Bush faced a challenge in Senator McCain. Deemed a maverick for occasionally breaking with Republican orthodoxy, Senator McCain’s campaign had a promising start. Even my BFF, who did not fit the profile of a typical Republican voter, was excited about his campaign.

“McCain? That’s my DUDE”, my best friend Kim announced as we discussed the upcoming election that spring. “I’m only voting for Gore if McCain doesn’t secure the nomination!”

In pledging her vote to McCain, Kim was also a maverick. After all, the typical Republican voter is not a young Black woman from an overwhelmingly liberal city. Kim genuinely liked McCain and believed his presidency was what America needed. But after the South Carolina primary, Kim’s chances of voting for McCain in the general election evaporated.

 

Before the SC primary, Senator McCain’s campaign gave Geroge W. Bush a run for his money. That changed when whispers about a McCain family member spread throughout the state. McCain and his wife Cindy adopted a little girl from Bangladesh, showering her with love and raising her as one of their own. But anonymous callers reached out to GOP voters in South Carolina and told a different story. They said that McCain’s adopted daughter was his biological daughter, the product of an extramarital affair with a Black woman. There was no truth to this sordid tale. But enough GOP voters believed it. The Bush campaign disavowed any connection to the rumor. However, it should be noted that they benefited the most from Senator McCain’s poor performance in SC, and circumstantial evidence linked Bush affiliates to the whisper campaign.

Three aspects of this situation stood out to me. Forty percent of the enslaved Africans brought to the US passed through the ports at Charleston. As a result, South Carolina has had a sizeable Black presence since the colonial era. Given the long and rich history of Black Americans in that state, it bewilders me its voters were unable to tell the difference between a Black American and a South Asian! There is a reason why Black Americans have varying levels of Western European ancestry: the three centuries of physical contact between oppressed Black women and free white males. And speaking of South Carolina history: had McCain fathered a Black child out of wedlock, that wouldn’t be exceptional. Siring a child with a Black woman would have put McCain in company with one of South Carolina’s cherished sons: Senator Strom Thurmond.

Despite this historical context, the stain of the rumor was too much for South Carolina voters to ignore.

McCain lost the primary, and eventually, any chance of defeating Dubya for the GOP nomination that year. McCain would successfully obtain the GOP presidential nomination in 2008 but ultimately lose to Illinois senator Barack Obama that fall.

I did not realize the significance of McCain’s experience in the 2000 election at the time, but it was one of a few warning signs of America’s coming political dysfunction. As I continue to grapple with last year’s attempted coup and worry over the future of our Republic, I wish we’d paid more attention to the warning signs of the cracks in our structure. Though it is easy to blame the 45th President, an honest assessment does not end with him.

Far too many of our federally elected officials seek power for the sake of power. Once they obtain power and notoriety, there is no limit to what they will do to hold on to it. Engaging in dirty tricks against their opponents, focusing on inane culture wars, and outright lies have normalized. And while our political elites succeed in winning at all costs, the rest of us lose in the long term.

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A native Seattleite and recent East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been. I reside in the suburbs of NYC with my husband, daughter, and our two feisty but deeply loved cats.

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