Monday, March 03, 2008

Obama, McCain Must Fight Clinton Point By Point

Both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain have answered negative attacks against them in this presidential campaign, point by point. It is the only tactic that suffices when one is up against an unscrupulous opponent.

So, in South Carolina and Florida, decisive states in the battle for front runner status in the GOP primaries, McCain fought former Govs. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, going just as negative as they, and especially Romney, did. McCain had been the target of a scurrilous campaign by George W. Bush in the South Carolina Primary in 2000, that even went so far as to suggest wrongly that he was the father of an illegitimate child. He wasn't about to let that happen again, and therefore he stiffened his rhetoric when attacked. He started calling unfair as soon as things were turning unfair. He won both South Carolina and Florida, narrowly, and was on his way to becoming the presumptive GOP nominee.

Such a skillful response is also required of Obama. The Clintons, relying on their unscrupulous strategist Mark Penn, on Hillary Clinton's instinct for the gutter, and on Bill Clinton's bad temper and occasional anti-black comments, have launched one negative ad or statement after another in a racially-tinged campaign to discredit Obama and bring about a co-presidency by the Clintons. The worst was the ad suggesting Obama would not be up to responding to a terrorist attack launched at 3 a.m. when the telephone rang in the White House. Obama has pretty much given as good as he got, and has made the point that it is Clinton, not he, who is a purveyor of divisiveness and all that has been undesirable politically in American life.

Especially, the Clinton and the Romney tactics in the campaign have been reprehensible. McCain and Obama would have been swept aside had they not turned negative in turn against them.

This is a point that was driven into me in observing 40 years of politics, covering them for United Press International, Life magazine and the Los Angeles Times: The candidates who responded adequately, who got down into the dirt and fought it out with the Nixon-like, Yorty-like and Rafferty-like candidates, were the ones who succeeded in overcoming these squalid personalities. Like the Clintons, they were rotten to the core, but they ended up defeated.

Sometimes, it was only on the second or later try, however. In 1969, in a bitterly racist campaign then-Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty went after his challenger, Tom Bradley, who had led in the primary 42% to 26%, claiming spuriously that Bradley was a black militant who would let blacks take over the city. Bradley failed to respond adequately, trying to stick with his principles and stay above it all. The result was that Yorty pulled off an upset and served another four years (a good portion of it gallivanting around the world at public expense).

In 1973, Bradley and his strategists were determined not to let the same thing happen. When Yorty started throwing manure, as he had four years before, Bradley got down in the dirt with him in a nasty television debate on KNXT. He proved he could be just as tough as Yorty by attacking him just as vigorously. This time, Bradley won, and Yorty was through. So ended the career of a man who Pat Brown once called "the cleverest concocter of phony issues I ever knew."

The same thing happened when Alan Cranston ran against the demagogue Max Rafferty for the U.S. Senate in 1968. Rafferty had won the Republican primary that year against California's veteran senator, Tom Kuchel, based on such falsehoods as that Kuchel was gay and far to the left. Cranston was determined the same thing was not going to happen to him. He started yelling foul even before Rafferty had gotten into that mode in the general election. The result was that Cranston won, ending Rafferty's political career.

Rafferty came out of the campaign looking so bad that when I asked his manager, Lyn Nofziger, what, if anything, he could do to recoup politically, Nofziger told me that he had advised Rafferty to "shut up and hope the people forget." Unfortunately, for him, they did not forget. Rafferty failed to be reelected as state superintendent of public instruction, and ended up as president of Troy State University in an isolated part of Alabama.

With Nixon, he won high public office, based on the smears fashioned by his guttersnipe political advisor, Murray Chotiner, defeating both Jerry Voorhies for Congress and Helen Gahagen Douglas for the U.S. Senate. He claimed falsely that both were too close to Communists. Then he outmaneuvered Gov. Earl Warren at the 1952 Republican convention, gaining credit with Dwight Eisenhower for swinging the California delegation to Eisenhower's side in the credentials fight that decided the nomination, giving Eisenhower the victory over Sen. Robert Taft. Eisenhower rewarded Nixon with the vice presidency, and his squalid national career really began.

It was not until he faced John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, and Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown in the 1962 California gubernatorial election that Nixon was turned back, only to reemerge again as a fake "new Nixon" in the 1968 campaign, when Hubert Humphrey was besmirched by his backing for Lyndon B. Johnson's Vietnam war policy. To his great credit, then-Times editor Bill Thomas said at the time he would never believe there was a new Nixon, and he was right. (I wasn't),.

Nixon, however, fell into scandal after his first term, when it turned out he wasn't paying any income taxes to speak of, had used police state tactics against an "enemy's list," and was forced to resign in the Watergate crisis, but only after his opponents launched an impeachment drive against him and uncovered evidence that he had lied in trying to advance a cover up. At long last, Nixon's tactics were uncovered for what they were, and he might have gone to jail had Gerald Ford not pardoned him.

Some commentators on this blog have viewed me as too negative in comparing the Clintons to Nixon. But I think time will show that both of them are just as corrupt. One way to establish this would be to force the Clintons to release White House records and their tax returns.

Now, I feel that Obama and McCain must fight fire with fire -- be very strongly responsive when confronted with Clinton demagogy, to the point that like Yorty, Rafferty and Nixon, the Clintons too will eventually go down.

In appearing yesterday on CBS' Face The Nation, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, suggested that whoever comes out of Tuesday's primaries with a delegate lead should be the Democratic nominee, and that then it would be time for Democrats to resume campaigning positively.

Richardson said that Clinton's ad that Obama would not be up to responding adequately to a terrorist attack is untrue. "I happen to disagree with that ad that says Sen. Obama is not ready," he said. "He is ready. He has great judgment and internationalist background." Richardson has far more experience in foreign affairs than Clinton. He should know.

Obama has tried to respond as the opponents of Yorty, Rafferty and Nixon did. But unless he wins at least one of the two key states, tomorrow, Texas or Ohio, there can be no doubt Clinton will go on, even if she has fewer delegates. The Clintons of this world don't quit, until they are finally squashed.


I was sorry to hear today of the death Feb. 25 of Northern California journalist Mary Ellen Leary at the age of 94. Leary was the first woman to cover the California Legislature, and was one of the first women to win a Nieman fellowship. She also did a special study on how California political writers covered the 1976 political campaigns. Both gracious and able, she notably got the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, for which she worked, to oppose capital punishment at a time when virtually all the state's papers supported it.



Anonymous Jason Bezis said...

I had no idea that journalist Mary Ellen Leary was still living. Her book that I'm most familiar with is "Phantom Politics," about the 1974 California gubernatorial campaign. I thought that she was married to another journalist -- Herbert "Pete" Phillips of the Sacramento Bee comes to mind.

5/24/2008 1:11 PM  

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