[Documents menu] Documents menu

Dead Serious: Ads and Calls Go for Jugular

By Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post,
Thursday 2 November 2000; Page A20

In the campaign's waning days, some political organizations are resorting to an old and highly divisive tactic: linking candidates to death and tragedy.

The Democratic Party is making phone calls in which a 70-year-old widow suggests George W. Bush is to blame for her husband's death in a Texas nursing home.

The NAACP is airing an ad with a pickup truck in which the daughter of James Byrd Jr., a black man dragged to his death in Texas, lashes out at Bush.

In the New York Senate race, the Republicans have made calls trying to link Hillary Rodham Clinton to the terrorists who bombed the USS Cole.

Attempting to tie a candidate to a horrendous crime is a high-stakes gamble, often done through low-profile phone banks, that invariably produces charges of desperation. Such attacks take a legitimate disagreement--say, over nursing home regulation--and try to demonize the opponent. The underlying rationale, analysts say, is that "real" people are more believable than politicians.

"If you can take the tragedy and turn it into something that's relevant politically, you can get a big payoff," said Darrell West, a Brown University professor. "But there's a risk that it can backfire. . . . Tragedy is emotional, and emotions can move in a lot of different directions."

Said Republican political consultant Don Sipple: "Trying to put blood on Bush's hands is not credible." He called the Byrd murder "a vile and vicious crime, but to lay blame on the shoulders of George W. Bush is where you lose credibility."

In New York, Rep. Rick Lazio has refused to disavow state GOP calls saying that the first lady's campaign "openly brags about its support for a Mideast terrorism group--the same kind of terrorism that killed our sailors on the USS Cole."

Clinton returned $50,000 to members of the American Muslim Alliance after the group's leader was quoted as defending the idea of Palestinians taking up arms against Israel. "Trying to link the first lady of the United States to a terrorist group is just incomprehensible," said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson.

Seizing on the issue, Clinton has launched an ad that pictures the crippled ship, with taps playing in the background: "Sadly, Rick Lazio is trying to exploit this tragedy. His campaign is making 500,000 phone calls saying Hillary supports this appalling act of terrorism. 'Absurd,' says the New York Times, 'irresponsible smear tactics.' " Lazio's campaign did not make the calls.

Lazio spokesman Michael Marr called the criticism of the recently halted calls "an attempt to divert attention from the fact that Mrs. Clinton has invited people who are sympathetic to terrorists to the White House."

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, says the calls against Clinton are "the worst" of the recent attacks. "It's sickening to suggest she would in any rational way be responsible for the death of the Navy servicemen and women," he said.

The exploitation of tragedy has been an advertising staple since Bush's father turned Willie Horton into a household name in 1988. The convicted murderer had raped a woman while taking advantage of a weekend-furlough policy adopted by Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

By 1994, a number of GOP candidates were using the technique, including Bush's brother Jeb, in his unsuccessful campaign against Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. A woman named Wendy Nelson talked about the murder of her young daughter, saying: "I know Jeb Bush. He'll make criminals serve their sentences and enforce the death penalty. Lawton Chiles won't."

Two years later, President Clinton appropriated the technique. Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly had been killed, recounted the crime in an ad, saying: "President Clinton forced Congress to pass his tough crime bill."

In the new NAACP ad, which features a picture of the back of a truck and a chain, Renee Mullins, Byrd's daughter, says that in 1998 "my father was killed. He was beaten, chained and then dragged three miles to his death, all because he was black. So when Governor George W. Bush refused to support hate crimes legislation, it was like my father was killed all over again."

Bush supported a 1997 revision of the state's hate crimes law, which critics have called too vague, but declined to endorse the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Act last year in part because it added a provision covering sexual orientation. The law would not have increased the penalties for the men who killed Byrd, two of whom have been sentenced to death.

Sabato said the ad "is just designed to inflame racial passions. Shame on them. . . . With each passing election cycle, the techniques become more vicious and people become hardened to it."

But Andrea Pringle, communications director for the NAACP National Voter Fund, said that "we're very proud of the ad, actually. . . . Renee has been a wonderful spokesperson for us. She tells her story and her experience. She feels like his death was in vain. She doesn't hold [Bush] responsible for her father's death. But she asked him to support a bill, and he said no."

In the Democrats' Michigan calls, Ann Friday talks about the 1996 death of her husband, Jack: "He could be alive today if it wasn't for the neglect he experienced. When George W. Bush ran for governor, he promised to improve the quality of life for nursing home residents. But George W. Bush broke that promise when he signed legislation that weakened nursing home standards."

Nursing home advocates criticized an industry-backed law signed by Bush in 1995 that limited state safety requirements to those contained in federal law.

Karl Rove, Bush's senior strategist, said the phone calls are "reprehensible." Noting that 2,500 nursing homes were cited for violations that led to serious harm or death in one year, Rove said: "Are those the responsibility of the vice president of the United States? I don't think so. This guy died a terrible death, but to say the death is George Bush's responsibility is just beyond the pale. It's shameless."

Gore defended the calls to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, saying: "I'm told that it was completely and totally factual" and that Bush's "policies are clearly responsible for a lot of problems."

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post

[World History Archives]    [Gateway to World History]    [Images from World History]    [Hartford Web Publishing]