Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The “Bush Bash” lessons

My friend Michael Gaffney says a pox on both houses for all of the negative mudslinging in the presidential campaign. I can’t blame him for turning away in disgust. This election has gone downhill rather rapidly and I’ve been just as guilty as anyone of following it down that path.

But I would just say that the fault lies less with the politicians and more with the electorate which has allowed itself to be swayed by negative campaigns over the years. The voters (those that bother to vote) have a habit of awarding election victories to whoever manages to slam their opponent the hardest. It doesn’t pay anymore to sit back and take the high road while your opponent trashes your character - just ask Michael Dukakis.

George W. Bush learned that lesson a long time ago when he made his unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat from Lubbock in 1978. He got slammed by his opponent after one of his supporters ran an ad in the Texas Tech newspaper touting a “Bush Bash” fundraiser featuring “Free Beer-Music”.
I wrote about the incident several years ago when I was a reporter for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal...

“...Bush would run into one more stumbling block before crossing the finish line in November. The infamous ''Bush Bash'' ad that appeared in the University Daily, Tech's student newspaper, on Sept. 18, 1978, became prime fodder for a last-minute counterattack by Hance's campaign. The ad invited students to attend a ''Bush Bash'' that evening with ''free beer-music'' at the home of former Lubbock Mayor Jim Granberry.

Just as the race was winding down, George Thompson, one of Hance's law partners, penned a letter to 4,000 Church of Christ and First Baptist Church members that called into question Bush's moral character for using alcohol to garner the support of Tech students.

The letter extolled Hance as a person of high moral character and then went on to state ''Kent's opponent, young Mr. Bush, apparently is using tactics to secure votes which do not indicate the same high character. Mr. Bush has used some of his vast sums of money in an attempt, evidently, to persuade young college students to vote for and support him by offering free alcohol to them.''

Bush called the letter questioning his morals ''unfair'' and said he did not know about the ad in the student newspaper before it was published.

Today, Hance said he does not believe the ''Bush Bash'' was a factor in his election victory. He said his polling at the time did not show any significant change before and after the issue went public.

''I really think that Mahon's endorsement of me was a bigger help than the one-day story on the beer bash.''

But Bush supporters from that period remember the issue as being much more damaging.

''I wouldn't say it killed it for him, but it didn't help him any,'' Stinnett said. ''I think it hurt him with those particular church groups.''

''My sense is that it was overstated,'' Weiss said. ''But it didn't help things. The letter to The A-J about how improper it was really hurt.''

Today, Bush and his surrogates are quick to attack on the “character” issue and all of its implications. And Democrats, not willing to be the good guys who finish last, are ready to respond in kind. So we get campaigns that focus on “character” issues like the Swift Boat allegations and the National Guard follies. To be fair, the “official” campaigns don’t focus on these things, but their surrogates do and so does the national media.

Now I tend to be very pragmatic about these kinds of things. If this is the way you have to win elections these days then that’s what you have to do until someone can come up with a way to make it better. We can tut-tut about it all day long, but this is the reality we are faced with.

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