In the Times today, Jennifer Steinhauer reports on John McCain and his sorry road to defeat in the South Carolina primary of 2000, something from which, I believe, he has never really regained his bearings. As I report in Anything for a Vote, it was quite sad to see this heroic American, tortured in North Vietnamese prison camps, laid low by thugs working for his own party.
As Steinhauer points out, it all began with McCain’s stunning 18-point primary win in New Hampshire that fateful winter, sending him to the South with quite reasonable expectations of becoming our next President. But then things got very deeply dark and nasty. In classic “push-polling,” Republican operatives telephoned would be voters to ask them: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” (At that time, McCain and his wife had just adopted an orphaned Bangladeshi girl, their daughter Bridget.) Republicans are not the only ones to use push-polling—John F. Kennedy’s men employed it to good effect in 1960 when they asked voters, well after the issue of JFK’s Catholicism was defused, “Do you think they are going to keep Kennedy from becoming president just because he is Catholic?”—but the GOP has cornered the market on the race-baiting variety, which they employed in the 1988 Bush-Dukakis contest, and, most famously, in 1972. Then, minions of that dark prince of dirty tricks, Donald Segretti (whose name means “secret” in Italian) had rude black people call New Hampshire residents at ungodly hours, claiming that they had been bussed in from Harlem to work for Democratic contender Ed Muskie’s campaign.
There were other smears on McCain, as Steinhauer’s article details, with the end result being that he lost in South Carolina. You might not think so, but calling a man a homosexual, drug addict, and coward—even if the evidence plainly contradicts these allegations—works quite well. As Thomas Elder, a canny Whig politician of 1840, wrote to a friend in a eureka moment: “Passion and prejudice properly aroused and directed do about as well as principle and reason in any party contest.”
Actually, Elder was wrong—prejudice beats principle hands down, every time….