Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Campaigns That Stoop to Conquer

THE bad news in Kathleen Hall Jamieson's book "Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction, and Democracy," is the stunning political power of good pictures, dramatic assertions, and snappy one-liners - however false or irrelevant.

The good news has arrived, partly, after this book went to press last summer. Voters appear quite restless in their role as passive spectators and are demanding substantive answers to national problems.

About these ads

Professor Jamieson is an expert in political communication. She is herself a familiar talking head in the soundbitten world of campaign commentary. The picture she paints of the impact of campaigns on the mind of the not-too-attentive voter is not a pretty one.

Her dissection of how drama overcomes data, how vilification and flat assertion replace argument, and how reporters cover strategy instead of substance is methodical and even-handed.

Her lawyerly rigor probably sells short voter intuition in these matters; voters who get the facts wrong may get the candidate right nonetheless. But that is not to dispute her conclusions.

She argues that the 1980 campaign that elected Ronald Reagan offered voters fuller arguments and a better prediction of the presidency to follow than did the 1988 campaign that elected George Bush.

The 1992 campaign has been a year of extremes - full of campaign cheap shots yet full of politicians, reporters, and even voters themselves doing something about it. By her own standards, voters are far better served by this year's campaign discourse than they were in 1988.

Much of Jamieson's attention is focused on the falsehoods and fallacies of the 1988 Bush campaign. She held discussions in focus groups of voters three years later and asked what they remembered about the 1988 campaign. The answers came as a mishmash of half-remembered facts and errors. They centered around the infamous Massachusetts convict Willie Horton.

"William Horton and Michael Dukakis are now twinned in our memory," she writes. "The fact that the memories are factually inaccurate does not diminish their power."

About these ads

The facts:

Horton may or may not have actually murdered anyone. He was convicted of murder under a state law that charges all accessories with a killing. He claimed he was driving the getaway car in a robbery turned violent. Under a plan established by the Republican governor who preceded Mr. Dukakis, Horton was allowed a weekend furlough. The Reagan administration had a similar furlough program for federal prisoners. Once furloughed, Horton headed for Maryland, where he raped a woman and assaulted her fiance.

The ads:

Bush used Horton's case in speeches for months as an example of Dukakis's softness on criminals. The Bush campaign television ad shows a revolving door of criminals entering and leaving prison. The voice-over announces that Dukakis had furloughed "first-degree murderers not eligible for parole." Then adds, "While out, many committed other crimes like kidnaping and rape."

As these words are spoken, "268 Escaped" is flashed across the bottom of the screen. But of the 268 convicts who jumped furlough in Dukakis's first two terms, Jamieson points out, only four had been first-degree murderers not eligible for parole. And of those, not "many" but one - Willie Horton - went on to kidnap and rape.

If these corrections of fact sound like quibbles, that is the handicap facts face against the power of a dramatic story. The Horton saga, Jamieson says, was not representative of Dukakis's record on crime but an exotic exception.

The drama of the narrative gained strength through the 1988 campaign. Other ads by conservative groups made clear that Horton was black and his victims white. His victims and their families appeared in ads and went on national tours against Dukakis.

The press:

Reporters made attempts to truth-test the Horton story and countered the Bush campaign with contradicting facts at points. But the press was hamstrung by a convention of journalism that reports political news by focusing on strategy rather than substance.

So instead of exploring how the Horton story fit into the candidates' attitudes toward crime, news stories explained what Bush was trying to gain with the attack and how Dukakis was vulnerable.

What Jamieson calls the "strategy schema" turns citizens into spectators, "cynical and detached." She writes: "In the strategy schema, candidates do not address problems with solutions but `issues' with `strategies.' The language of the strategy schema is that of sports and war."

The central question becomes: Who is winning and how?

Her point is well taken, but the press did not create this strategy schema from whole cloth. That's the way campaign managers themselves think. Political reporters also know that the most frequent question from family, friends, and audiences is some form of "Who will win?"

The good campaigns, in Jamieson's schema, are the ones where arguments are engaged, questions are followed up, and commercials are long and fleshed out. In 1960 and 1980, two good years, the winning candidates ran television commercials at a standard length of five minutes. In 1988, the standard length was 30 seconds.

This year the two major-party candidates are running short ads and counting how many times they each raised taxes - a nonsensical measure of anything. But Ross Perot is running 30- and 60-minute commercials laying out problems and solutions on a central national problem, the deficit.

Voters are paying attention. Voter registration is rising sharply, and three presidential debates in quick succession drew surprisingly high audiences.

When talk-show host Phil Donahue focused on whether his guest Bill Clinton had had affairs, Clinton finally rebelled and refused to answer another question on the topic. The audience applauded and shouted approval. One member of the audience told Mr. Donahue: "I can't believe you spent half an hour of air time attacking this man's character. I'm not even a Bill Clinton supporter, but I think this is ridiculous."

Jamieson puts her hope in such rebellions.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.