Political dirty tricks are a staple of modern politics

    From Ted Cruz Facebook page.

    From Ted Cruz Facebook page.

    Ted Cruz, playing dirty tricks during an election? Say it ain’t so!

    Over the past few weeks, Cruz’ GOP opponents have worked themselves into a lather of right-wing indignation over his underhanded tactics. As Cruz admitted, his campaign spread false rumors that Ben Carson was dropping out of the race. And the campaign distributed a video that purported to show Marco Rubio doubting the Bible, which led Cruz to fire his communications director.

    But here’s one thing you won’t hear Cruz’s foes say: dirty tricks have become a hallmark of the modern Republican Party. Over the past half-century, the GOP has perfected the dark art of the underhanded smear.

    It used to be much more bipartisan tradition. In the 19th century, Democrats insinuated that Abraham Lincoln was secretly black. They did the same thing to Warren Harding in the 1920s. And Franklin D. Roosevelt instructed his aides to spread rumors about marital infidelity by his 1940 Republican opponent, Wendell Wilkie.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    “Spread it as a word-of-mouth thing, or by some people way, way down the line,” said FDR, who was carrying on his own extra-marital affair. “We can’t have any of our principal speakers refer to it.”

    Likewise, Lyndon Johnson and his close advisors didn’t smear Barry Goldwater directly in 1964. They left that to an army of low-level operatives, who wrote anti-Goldwater letters to Ann Landers under false names. They even put out a children’s coloring book that featured Goldwater dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes.

    The Democrats’ best-known dirty-trickster was a Californian named Dick Tuck, who became a thorn in the side a different “Tricky Dick”: Richard Nixon. In 1960, during Nixon’s first presidential bid, Tuck posed as a train conductor in order to interrupt a whistle-stop speech by the candidate. And at the 1972 Republican convention, which nominated Nixon for a second term in the White House, Tuck organized a group of pregnant female protesters who wore buttons embossed with the president’s campaign slogan: “Nixon’s The One.”

    Meanwhile, Nixon had instructed his aides to hire a trickster with “Dick Tuck capability.” They found one in Donald Segretti, who forged a letter from Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie accusing another candidate, Henry Jackson, of fathering an illegitimate child with a 17-year-old girl. A second fake Muskie letter used the anti-Canadian slur “Canuck,” raising hackles among the many voters in Muskie’s native Maine who traced their heritage to Canada.

    Segretti eventually served four months in prison for distributing illegal campaign literature. But his legacy continued in the hands of Karl Rove, aide to both Bush presidents, who met Donald Segretti when Rove was 21.

    Rove had already started down the dirty-tricks road by that point, using a fake ID to enter a Democratic office in Illinois, steal some letterhead, and forge a few fliers. But he became a true master of the genre in the ensuing years. During George H. W. Bush’s victorious 1988 White House campaign, Rove spread rumors that Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis was mentally unstable; when George W. Bush took on Ann Richards for governor of Texas in 1994, Rove insinuated that she was a lesbian.

    And in 2000, when the younger Bush faced a sharp challenge from John McCain in the South Carolina GOP primary, Rove led a whispering campaign to suggest that McCain had fathered an African-American daughter out of wedlock. In fact, McCain and his wife had adopted a girl from Bangladesh.  

    Rove wasn’t the only Republican sullying his hands with dirty tricks. Going back to 1980, aides to Ronald Reagan stole briefing books that were used to prepare president Jimmy Carter for his debates against Reagan. But it was in Congressional and state elections—much farther from the national spotlight–where the GOP really honed its methods of deceit.

    In 1978, Republicans produced an advertisement purporting to show Arizona Democratic Congressman Morris Udall saying, “I’m for socialism.” The clip actually came from a speech in which Udall demanded that private citizens pay to use public lands. “If paying the American public for their land is socialism, then I’m for socialism,” Udall said.

    That became a template for the sort of thing visited on Marco Rubio by the Ted Cruz campaign, which distributed a video—initially posted by the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper—where Rubio supposedly remarked that are “not many answers” in the Bible. In fact, Rubio said the opposite: that the Bible has “all the answers.”

    To be sure, Democrats have continued to play their own kinds of electoral tricks over the years. Back in 1984, supporters of Gary Hart planted fortune cookies at a Pennsylvania fund-raiser for Walter Mondale, the eventual Democratic nominee. When you opened up the cookies, their fortune predicted, “Hart Wins Pennsylvania.”

    And in a much more serious vein, President Obama’s 2008 campaign accused Hillary Clinton’s staffers of circulating a picture of Obama wearing African clothing in order to feed rumors that he was secretly a Muslim. Obama’s campaign manager called it “the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we’ve seen from either party in this election.”

    But since the Nixon years, the Republicans have clearly outpaced the Democrats in the dirty-tricks department. So please, spare us the false shock and anger over Ted Cruz’s underhanded campaign tactics. That ship sailed a very long time ago, and now it’s entering the Republicans’ own port.  



    Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education” (Princeton University Press).

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal