Running an election on dirty tricks

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, August 15 1988

The man most likely to become the next President of the United States, Michael Dukakis, has spent much of the last two weeks denying that he has ever been treated for mental illness. This raises two points.

First, there is the curious implication that the American electorate would rather have a President whose mental illness has not been treated – a proposition which many observers feel should have been laid to rest permanently by the experience of the last eight years.

Second, and more important, is the question of how Dukakis came to be confronted by the issue in the first place, particularly since during the entire lifespan of the controversy, which has been spawning front page headlines across the country since late July, there has been a striking absence of evidence to keep it going. The answer is a landmark in this Presidential campaign: the Mad Mike story was the first bona fide dirty trick of the election.

This week, the Republicans plan to anoint Vice President George Bush as their candidate at a convention which, on past performance, will be stage-managed right down to the last drop of schmaltz. The convention organiser, Mark Goode, is known in Republican circles as The Wizard of Ooze.

But it is, of course, only the stage which is being managed. The convention is being held in New Orleans, a ragged, raunchy, sweaty, sinful and altogether entirely appropriate setting for an event which, in truth, is very little to do with George’s graceful grinning for the cameras. Off in the wings, it is really a grand opportunity for all the wheelers and dealers, all the grafters and shafters of the Republican Party to get together for an orgy of political deal-making and in-fighting. A conspiracy in every corner. Which is where the dirty tricks come in.

Back in June, the Washington grapevine first twitched with the news that George Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, was trying to float the idea that Dukakis had a history of mental instability for which he had sought treatment. Atwater’s difficulty was to launch the smear without leaving his signature on it.

Atwater evidently tried to conduct an investigation at arm’s length by using Republican supporters who had no overt link with the Bush team. They were supposed to ferret out the facts and then discreetly share them with receptive reporters. The Bush camp believed this strategy was working and that they were going to score a great coup with a story in the Detroit News which would have no traceable connection with them but which would detail visits made by Dukakis to a psychiatrist friend in Boston. In the event, the strategy turned out to be a double-barrelled shot in the foot.

In the first place, the Detroit News was scooped by followers of the right-wing raver Lyndon ‘The Queen is a drug smuggler’ La Rouche, who went public with the allegation without any evidence and succeeded only in embarrassing Bush who has no desire to be linked with La Rouche who appears to be completely barmy and is currently facing a trial for fraud.

Then, when the Detroit News finally published its story on August 2, it failed to say anything new or hard, causing further embarrassment to Bush whose aides had contacted Republicans all over the country to gear them up for the big Detroit revelation. To complete the disaster, just as the Bush people were beating a hasty retreat and denying all knowledge of this rumour-mongering, President Reagan came blundering into the picture calling Dukakis an invalid. This was evidently the work of Mrs Reagan who is said to have been still twittering with indignation and demanding revenge for Dukakis’ suggestion that just as a fish rots from the head, so the President was personally responsible for the corruption in his administration.

The question now is whether the New Orleans convention will be the seed bed of a new crop of dirty tricks, or whether this disaster has put a stop to the plot. On the face of it, there is reason to believe that there is plenty of dirt still to come.

In general terms, elections in the US, more than in other democracies, thrive on dirty tricks, largely because there is not much else to fight about. Policy plays almost no part in the campaign. You can barely squeeze a postcard between the political positions of Dukakis and Bush. If they were British, they would both be in the same party. Bush would line up with the Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party and Dukakis would have no quarrel with the Heathite wing.

To the marginal extent that their policies do differ, the electorate is effectively kept in the dark by the relentless stupidity of American television, the only national medium. A Presidential campaign is left with two objectives – to try and persuade the TV stations to hang some simple insult around the opposition’s neck; and to stay out of trouble. For tactical reasons, the Bush camp are now particularly prone to this approach.

Only three months ago, every poll and pundit in the country agreed that the George Bush machine would crush the dwarf Dukakis just as it had rolled over its Republican opponents in the primaries. Now, with Dukakis consistently leading the polls, that confidence is long gone. (Can it be mere co-incidence that this stunning reversal was immediately preceded by this column’s bold prediction that events would take just such a course?)

There is an air of suppressed desperation in the Bush camp. Discussing the Mad Mike story last week, the leading right-wing columnists, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, wrote: “This was no trivial excursion but a vital tool in the quest for the world’s most powerful elective office. Republicans are beginning to doubt Bush’s ability… They are coming to feel that the political destruction of Dukakis is necessary for Bush to win.”

The notion of Bush plotting a dirty route through the campaign is encouraged by his long association with the mysterious Skull and Bones Club, the secret society of Yale University graduates to which he has belonged for 40 years. It has a provocative masonic air about it, although it has to be said that with the exception of a bizarre complaint from Mexico last week that the club had stolen the skull of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, there is no sign that it has actually ever done anything to live up to its conspiratorial image.

A more promising line for plot-spotters has been the strange behaviour of the dollar over the last four weeks. This is alleged in some quarters to be evidence of the highest grade of dirty trick: a plot by a cabal of Republicans and meddling foreign governments to install Bush in the White House by manipulating the price of the dollar.

This was first articulated by a New York investment banker, Jeffrey Garten, who wrote in the New York Times that “Bonn and Tokyo are using their hammerlock on our currency to cast their votes.” Garten’s analysis focused on the United States’ huge trade deficit, which is a potentially disastrous burden in an election.

The Reagan administration has handled the deficit by selling bonds to foreign investors to raise more cash. But the same deficit also tends to depress the dollar which makes it difficult to persuade foreign investors to buy the bonds. Enter – according to Garten – the governments of West Germany and Japan ignoring their own economic interests and helpfully pushing the dollar upwards to keep the foreign funds flowing into Washington.

For a while, Garten’s story looked good. Other bankers endorsed his view. Of course, they said, this was all set up by James Baker before he left the US Treasury to become Bush’s new campaign manager. An extra dimension to the plot slipped into view when President Reagan signed legislation to pardon and compensate Japanese Americans who had been interned during the war – clearly a sweetener to keep his allies in Tokyo in the Republican camp, said the plot-spotters.

However, early last week, the theory took a bashing when the Federal Reserve Board unexpectedly boosted interest rates, a move which sent the dollar soaring and made the Meddling Government Plot entirely redundant.

But the underlying weakness of the theory was the motive of the meddling governments. In support of his allegation, Garten cited the supposed fear in Bonn and Tokyo that a Dukakis administration might ask its allies to pay for more of their own defence costs, might take a tougher line on trade and might slow the pace of foreign takeovers of US businesses. These are, however, all positions which have also also been taken by the Republicans. Bush offers the same threats and promises as Dukakis. There is almost nothing to choose between them and no reason for foreign governments, let alone the American people, to become overexcited about the outcome of their contest. The next dirty tricks, if they come, will be a welcome diversion.