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Politics: Mitt’s Dirty Trick

[ 0 ] February 2, 2012 | Charles Branham-Bailey

Brokaw TV Ad Stunt Was But a Replay From ’88

Psst…are they gone?

Yep, I think the coast is clear. You can all come out of your closets and emergency shelters now.

Mitt and Newt have evacuated the state much in the way that leaves us relieved after a marauding hurricane has evacuated it. And they’ve taken their sludge-slinging campaign managers, advisors, and minions with ‘em.

Our airwaves, for the first time in weeks, are blessedly sanitized of their incessant, vitriolic attack ads.

Good riddance.

Four weeks removed from the frigid winter of Iowa, the GOP campaign finally sunk to its nastiest depths in the tropical warmth of our Sunshine State.

Here, the Mitt-and-Newt Mud Fest churned up more mud than at a monster truck mud racing show. The stuff that these two slung became the most noxious pollution to hit the state’s shores since the tar balls from the BP oil spill.

Forget Iowa, forget New Hampshire, forget South Carolina. Here, the campaigns pulled out the grenade caps and fired off their bazookas at each other, from Mitt blasting Newt’s past ethics problems to Newt ambushing Mitt over allegedly ill-gotten profits derived from past business transactions.

And then there was The Ad. You know the one. The one with Tom Brokaw. The one that sucked up all the oxygen in the room.

The Mother of All Ad Bombs, it was. Dive-bombed on the Newt troops in what was “Mitt’s Blitz.”

Team Romney’s ploy of trotting out such a controversy-stoking ad in the final days prior to a crucial primary was nothing new. Politics watchers recognize it as a page from right out of another campaign’s playbook, one from 24 years ago.

Mitt’s Blitz would no doubt make the architects of the 1988 sneak attack it mimics – Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes, and John Sununu – proud.

Leaving aside the dubious license Team Romney took in misappropriating the Brokaw footage for use in their ad (Mitt was wrong to use it), and his insincere pledge on Monday’s Today Show that the campaign would reconsider its use of the footage after NBC and Brokaw protested (Team Romney stood firm and refused to drop the ad), the Romney spot – launched as a desperate, Hail Mary, kamikaze attack on Team Gingrich – was vintage Atwater. And, judging from Tuesday’s win, it worked.

Atwater’s been dead for 21 years now, but the infamous dirty trickster’s playbook lives on after him. Romney operatives must have been reading from it in the run-up to Tuesday’s primary.

I’ll take you back 24 years, to February 1988. Vice President George H. W. Bush was seeking Reagan’s “third term.” Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole was his main challenger.

“George Bush’s ['88] campaign, orchestrated by Ailes and Atwater,” chronicles novelist and blogger Adam Cadre, “was one of the most loathsome in modern American history.

“Most elections are at least marginally about the issues of the day, but Bush, Ailes and Atwater made ’88 about Willie Horton, Boston Harbor and the Pledge of Allegiance. But before they could get to Dukakis, they had to get past Dole, which they did by cutting a last-minute deal to get the infamous ‘Senator Straddle’ ad, with all its distortions, on New Hampshire television.”

Already, Bush was on the ropes. He had lost the Iowa caucuses, finishing an embarrassing third to Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson. Next up: the New Hampshire contest, where polls showed Dole surging.

For the vice president, the state was a make-or-break; he had to score a win. Atwater, Ailes, and the state’s governor, Bush supporter Sununu, would all play integral roles in the battle for New Hampshire.

New Hampshire “had always been a rock-ribbed conservative state and a key to the Republican nomination,” writes James P. Pfiffner in his 1999 history, The Managerial Presidency, but “Bush’s conservative credentials were somewhat suspect.”

Sununu had a plan. Recalls Pfiffner:

“When an aide began to commiserate with him about the disaster of Bush’s third-place finish in Iowa, Sununu explained how the situation was in fact an opportunity. ‘Don’t you see how much good I’m going to be able to do for the next President of the United States?’ Sununu then took the offensive in calling in every favor he had earned while he was governor and designed a media blitz” to help Bush win.

“The strategy centered around having the vice president pledge ‘no new taxes’ while television spots bashed Senator Dole as ‘Senator Straddle’” by charging that he had “straddled” both sides of the fence on taxes and that he “might consider a tax increase as one element of an attempt to shrink the deficit” – even though some of the tax hikes he was accused of backing had been signed by Reagan himself.

The vice president had originally scuttled the ad. But after advisors presented him evidence that not running it could cost him the primary, he okayed it. The campaign would now shift into negative mode.

Atwater and Ailes, running the Bush effort from D.C., prepared the spot. Sununu recalled what happened next for a 2007 Boston Globe story:

“On Thursday and Friday the campaign debated whether to use it. [Others] and I urged that it be run. When Bush agreed, the late scramble was on to get the ad on the air.”

With the weekend approaching and the Manchester TV stations’ sales offices closed for the weekend, Team Bush rushed its spot to the stations, the state’s only media market.

“Fortunately,” Sununu continues, “the WMUR management reopened the [TV commercial] rotation to accommodate their new friend, the vice president.”

Since Team Bush had bought up all available 30-second spots through Primary Day, and with no way to air a rebuttal to the “Senator Straddle” spot, Team Dole lost precious days in which to mold public opinion and solidify their lead.

Then on Tuesday, they lost, 29% to Bush’s 38%.

“Bush beat Dole by 9%,” remembers Sununu, “almost the 10% we promised him. Once more, our voters proved New Hampshire picks presidents. On victory night Vice President Bush said it all: ‘Thank you, New Hampshire.’”

Dole was bitter. “I think if it hadn’t been for his false advertising the last three days,” the senator said of Bush on primary night, “we would have beaten him.”

After that night’s returns, and as he was wrapping up a live interview with Dole, Brokaw asked the senator if he had anything to say to the vice president, who was also on camera. Snapped Dole: “Yeah, tell him to stop lying about my record.”

In a 2008 review of a documentary, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, James Rocchi wrote that Atwater “didn’t just master the dark arts of wedge politics and dirty-tricks campaigning” but also taught other Republicans what he knew: “Karl Rove studied under him in college; George W. Bush worked with [him] on his father’s 1988 campaign.”

Cut to 2012. A Romney campaign advisor told the New York Times last Sunday that they were applying a “let’s rush the quarterback” strategy on Gingrich, a major part of which was buying up air time and saturating Florida’s media markets with the Brokaw spot, among others.

Romney desperately wants to be president. He knows this may be his last chance at the brass ring; if he fails to win the nomination, it would be his second failed attempt. In 2016, when he would be 69, others much younger may run.

If he secures the nomination but loses in November, the party will not renominate him. Winners go on to seek reelection; losers recede into the political woodwork.

Now’s his turn. And no one’s going to stand between him and the White House, certainly not some thrice-married, double-chinned, ethics-challenged, hot-headed, too-conservative-for-the-mainstream-voter, lightning-rod former speaker of the House. If an attack ad – using footage purloined at the cost of offending one of the country’s most-respected former TV news anchors – has to be unleashed, then unleashed it shall be. No matter that “going negative” runs counter to the gentlemanly manner in which he wanted to wage his campaign, and no matter whose airwaves such mudslinging clutters.

Florida has just gotten a taste of what the other 49 will see this fall: Mitt the Ruthless.

Somewhere, Lee Atwater must be smiling.



Super Bowl weekend gives me the excuse to dump on that most absurd aspect of the annual fest: Roman numerals. As in Super Bowl XLVI.

Can we please dispense with their use? It’s so ancient. So ridiculous.

Kansas City Chiefs historian Bob Moore attributes credit for their use to Lamar Hunt, the late Chiefs owner who also coined the name “Super Bowl” for the NFL’s annual championship game. (Well, one good idea out of 2 ain’t bad.)

Hunt preferred the use of Roman numerals over the more familiar Arabic numerals we use everyday because, Moore explains, Roman ones make the game seem “more important. It’s much more magisterial.”’s Gerard Michon says that early Super Bowls were assigned Roman numerals “that everybody knows.” Now, with some recent games employing a string of as many as seven Roman characters to express just 2 Arabic ones – XXXVIII for 2004′s 38th Bowl game, for example – “it looks kind of mysterious.” Not to mention a bit head-scratchingly confusing when trying to decipher what all the X’s, V’s, I’s, and L’s translate to.

The Miami Herald website this week, as a precursor to the Big Game, ran an Associated Press piece intended to be a primer on what each Roman numeral stands for, confirming that the paper would rather waste space on its website aimlessly instructing us about such antiquated twaddle over helping us understand something more relevant to our modern-day lives, say, the mortgage crisis or climate change. (Then again, the Herald regularly traffics in useless nonsense, as evidenced by their publishing a daily horoscope, among others.)

I want to see the discontinuance of Roman numerals in the copyrights of movie and TV show credits, which I find really annoying, especially when trying to figure out what-the-fuck-was-the-year-that-movie-was-made?

The Romans abandoned Roman numerals seven centuries ago, so who are we to still be fascinated with them?

But, as Michon put it in Latin: Quid quid latine dictum sit, altum videtur (“Anything stated in Latin looks important.”)

To which I reply: Yepus, sic (“Yep, that’s right.”)


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About Charles Branham-Bailey: View author profile.

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