Jim Carville, the Democratic political consultant who cashed in years ago to become a walking and talking caricature of himself, called New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson a “Judas” over the weekend because the one-time Presidential candidate and former Bill Clinton appointee had the gall to endorse Barack Obama for the party’s Presidential nomination.
Over in the Obama camp, a retired general compared Bill Clinton to Joe McCarthy because the former President suggested that only his wife and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain love their country.
Strap in boys and girls. The dirt is flying and everybody gets smeared.
Politics is a dirty business and the goal is to win at any cost. That means each side will throw generous amounts of mud at their opponents, hope some of it sticks, and then claim they are clean while everyone else is not.
The emails that float in over our electronic transom daily decry the “gutter” level of politics but such cries of anguish forget that political contests have long been endless exercises of insults, taunts and mud.
When Alexander Hamilton squared off against Thomas Jefferson in a bitter and contentious race for President, Hamilton told Jefferson in a debate that “while President Washington was the father of our great nation, you sir are the father of the mulatto race.”
In another debate, Jefferson brought up some unpleasant rumors about Hamilton’s sexual preferences and Hamilton snapped: “That sir is a topic that gentlemen do not discuss.”
Replied Jefferson: “Sir, if we had gentleman in government we would have no place for politics.”
The English long ago perfected the art of dirty politics.
British political leaders Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone hated each other — personally, professionally and politically.
An example during a debate in Parliament:
Gladstone: “You sir, shall die on the gallows or of venereal disease.”
Disreali: “That, sir, depends on whether I embrace your principles…or your mistress.”
I’d like to sit here and claim that I, as a journalist, am above such dirty tricks.
Sadly, I cannot. In the 1980s, I took a break from journalism and crossed over to the dark side of politics, working in a number of campaigns. My first came in 1982 when legendary political consultant Eddie Mahe offered a job to work on the re-election campaign of Congressman Manuel Lujan Jr. of New Mexico.
Lujan came close to losing his seat in 1980, eking out a 50.1 percent win over political newcomer Bill Richardson (yes, the same Bill Richardson who is now governor). Mahe’s instructions were simple: “This is going to be a tough campaign,” he said. “Do what it takes to win.”
In researching past campaigns, we discovered that Lujan — whose family settled in New Mexico in the 1600s — had never carried the Spanish speaking South Valley of Albuquerue. The Valley was heavily Mexican and they voted a straight Democratic ticket. Polls showed that many thought Lujan was a Democrat.
Jan Hartke, New Mexico’s state treasurer and son of former Indiana Senator Vance Hartke, opposed Lujan in 1982. Polls showed him ahead of the incumbent. The blond-haired, handsome Hartke built a strong campaign. Past election results said the South Valley vote could make the difference.
So, on the weekend before the election, residents of the South Valley woke up to find cards hanging on their door. A photo of Hartke graced the front with the question: “How do you say ‘Hartke’ in Spanish?” On the flip side, the answer said: “Gringo,” followed by detailed instructions, in Spanish, on how to cross over and pull the lever for Lujan in the voting booth. The card didn’t ask them to vote for any other Republicans on the ballot — just Lujan.
Hartke claimed the stunt was dirty politics but the disclaimer on the card said it was an independent effort paid for by a city car dealer and the Lujan campaign disavowed all knowledge of the event. The Albuquerque media had a policy in those days of not giving news coverage to any last minute attacks or claims so the issue never made the papers or the local newscasts.
Lujan carried the South Valley and the election. Hartke, deep in debt, left New Mexico and moved to the Washington area to practice law with his brother. Lujan served in Congress until his retirement in 1988 and later became Interior Secretary. I went on to work in other campaigns, then spent five years running the largest political action committee in the country (for the National Association of Realtors) before returning to journalism.
Stashed away in a box in a storage area of our home is a collection of materials from the New Mexico campaign, including a faded yellow legal pad with a drawing of the door card for that last minute stunt to sway the voters of the South Valley of Albuquerque — part of a plan that I laid out in a motel room two weeks before the election and handed to that car dealer.
Today, 26 years later, I look back on that period with neither pride nor satisfaction. Like so many who worked in politics then and do so now — I simply checked my ethics at the door and did what it took to win.