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What's it mean to do politics in this country these days? Consider the story of a man named Jack Robinson. One day this March, he held a press conference to announce that he was going to start gathering signatures to get on the ballot to run for senate in Massachusetts against Teddy Kennedy. He had never run for political office before.
Jack E. Robinson
And then literally within 24 hours of putting our name forward, we were hit with a withering attack, literally within the first day of even announcing the campaign. I was at Republican State Committee headquarters having interviews with the press. And sitting down with one of the reporters, the reporter asked me after I said why I'm running, by the way, have you ever been arrested for drunk driving? And I said, yes. No one would know about that because we sealed the case file, since I had been found not guilty and I'd passed the Breathalyzer test. I was very forthright and then gave the details. But that was the beginning of it. And then it just didn't stop. Then, have you ever had a restraining order ever taken against you and then this and then that and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
The plan was to announce the campaign and, perhaps this was political naivete on my part, maybe get a week or so of general publicity about what we stand for, who are we. Little did I know that within a day of announcing the campaign, no one would care about any of that stuff, who I am or what I stand for, but what's in my past.
And so Jack Robinson decided to take action. He issued a long public statement that is simply one of the most remarkable documents of current political life in this country. He called it "The Robinson Report" and posted it on the Internet for anybody to read. It outlines, in matter of fact prose and a disturbing level of detail, everything he thinks he's ever done wrong: an unpaid speeding ticket from the 1980s, an illegal martial arts implement that a police officer found in his pocket when he was a graduate student, his failure to pass the bar exam three times, a plagiarism case against him, a restraining order that a woman put against him, a variety of business lawsuits.
"By making this information public early in the campaign," he wrote, "I hope to have offered my fellow citizens a full and fair description of my personal background in a manner which allows them to decide whether I am capable of representing them in a position of public trust, confidence, and honor."
Jack E. Robinson
I've been told I've been the first person in American political history to drop a dime on himself. But I think the citizens will have to decide over the foreseeable future as to how much they want to know about people. I've done nothing wrong. I've committed no crimes. I've got no record. At the end of the day, people don't care about my drunk driving arrest 15 years ago any more than they care about Chappaquiddick 30 years ago.
Jack Robinson mentioned Chappaquiddick and what he called "Ted Kennedy's foibles," four times in the hour that I spent with him, each time declaring they should not be part of any campaign. Sort of nasty. But what exactly is a man to do? This is the state of politics in America.
And as we head into another season of presidential campaigning, Al Gore is already pounding on George Bush. And George Bush made clear in the primaries that went threatened, he'll get as nasty as he has to. The next few months of our political lives are going to be ugly, just ugly.
So in preparation for all the mud, we asked today, what are we to think of all this? What are we to make of what our culture has become? From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today, to shed light on the current situation, true stories of character assassination-- political and nonpolitical.
Our program today in five acts. Act One, "Those Who Ignore History are Condemned to Repeat It-- but Those Who Pay Attention to History are Also Condemned to Repeat It." Act Two, "Sonny Takes a Fall," in which David Foster Wallace reports on a turning point in the primary campaign of John McCain. John McCain's last moment as a serious contender-- the moment when his opponent started attacking and he had to decide how to handle it, and how he decided-- wrong. Act Three, "When Slime is Good." A former political consultant explains why it is that he tried to bait his opponent into attacking-- sometimes. Act Four, "Who are you Going to Call?" A conversation with one of the people that you'll hire if you're attacked. Act Five, "When Attacks Really Count," a look at character assassination when it occurs in a far more devastating arena than politics, I'm talking about junior high school. Stay with us.
Act One. Those Who Ignore History Are Condemned To Repeat It—But Those Who Pay Attention To History Are Also Condemned To Repeat It.
Act One, "Those Who Ignore History are Condemned to Repeat It." Ask most historians about dirty political attacks and they will tell you that they go back to the very beginning of our nation, Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson funded an opposition newspaper to trash President George Washington while Jefferson was actually part of Washington's administration. For most of the next 200 years, politicians routinely accused each other of being philanderers, of having illegitimate children, of being atheists. The only things that are different now, says historian Richard Norton Smith, are that first, none of us remember that because none of us knows anything about history. And second, because of television and the other electronic media. We see every reaction flash over these guys' faces, which gives it all a certain emotional power.
Richard Norton Smith
I mean, it's all in close up. It's much more intimate-- politics is much more intimate today. One hundred years ago, or even the early part of the 20th century, presidents were essentially remote figures. We saw them in newspapers. We didn't see them 24 hours a day. They didn't come into our living rooms. They weren't, in effect, an extended member of the family or a member of the extended family. There's an intimacy about the modern presidency.
In fact, that intimacy extends to all politics at every level. For example, what could be more intimate than this phone call which made statewide news in Massachusetts? Even the car guys played it on their program on NPR. Senatorial candidate Jack Robinson was on his cell phone talking to reporter Toni Randolph from Public Radio station WBUR. She was recording an interview asking about that day's news, that Governor Paul Cellucci had dropped his support for Robinson.
Jack E. Robinson
Basically, what you have is a Republican governor abdicating the United States senate campaign to Senator Kennedy just because the Governor doesn't think that there could be. I just got in an accident. Sorry about that. Are you still there?
I'm still here. Are you-- you got into an accident?
Jack E. Robinson
Well, somebody just hit me but I'm OK. Unfortunately, the other guy skidded across the highway here. But at any rate, boy, everything's happening to me. Cellucci's withdrawing his support and now people are sledding across the highway at me. But I'm OK. Looks like the other guy is too.
You sure you're OK?
Jack E. Robinson
Yes, I am. I'm fine.
OK. I don't know-- I'm in new territory here.
Jack E. Robinson
Yeah, I know. I think we'll have to stop the interview. But you got what you need. Sorry about that.
With the car accident, the stream of attack stories, the sheer oddness of putting out "The Robinson Report," detailing his own past-- at some point, a kind of pile-on mentality kicked in with the press and Jackie Robinson. And at this point, the press and other politicians don't seem to take him very seriously. But when another WBUR reporter, Sean Cole, spent a day watching Robinson meet Republican voters, they were all so relieved that anybody would run against Kennedy, they embraced him. So it's hard to say if revealing all this about himself has helped or hurt him.
Do you feel like it's fair that a person should have to say this much about themselves to get an office?
Jack E. Robinson
I don't know. It's difficult for me to answer that intellectually honestly. Whether it's fair or not really is not for me to determine. The people of Massachusetts will have to determine that.
But what do you think, personally?
Jack E. Robinson
I don't know. I mean, I've done it.
But personally, do you feel that it's fair? Does it feel right that you should have to do something like this to run for office?
Jack E. Robinson
No, it's definitely not right in my opinion. Clearly, I can answer that today. That's not how we should be picking candidates, as to who's got the strongest hide to disclose everything in their personal background that could possible be used against him.
There's this notion you hear sometimes that the viciousness of modern politics keeps good people from running for office. But sometimes the politics of attack simply hastens the political demise of a candidate whose prospects weren't so great from the start. Meeting Jack Robinson, you wonder about his seriousness. In his last official filing with the federal election commission, his campaign war chest had $613 in it as compared with his opponent's $3.7 million. He has yet to articulate any policy positions he seems truly impassioned about. And when I visited his campaign headquarters, there were no signs in the windows, no campaign posters out front, nothing that would let anybody know that anybody was running for anything.
Act Two. Sonny Takes A Fall.
Act Two. "Sonny Takes a Fall."
It turns out that if both sides in a political fight start throwing mud at each other, contrary to what you might think, it can definitely benefit one side more than the other. In a sense, this is the scenario that decided this year's republican nomination for president. David Foster Wallace happened to be reporting on the South Carolina primaries on the campaign of John McCain, when he got a chance to see this happen firsthand.
David Foster Wallace
Even the network techs, who are practically zen masters at waiting around and killing time, are bored out of their minds today. The way the techs handle deep boredom is to become extremely sluggish and torpid. So that lined up on the makeshift ottoman, they look like an exhibit of lizards whose rock isn't hot enough. Nobody reads. Pulse rates are maybe about 40. The ABC cameraman lets his eyes almost close and naps in an un-restful way. The CBS and CNN techs who like cards today are not even bothering to play cards but are instead describing memorable card games they've been in in the past.
Outside the riverfront hotel's side door, where it's so cold and windy you have to smoke with mittens on, Jim C. and his partner, Frank C.-- no relation-- engage in some off-the-record discourse about the 12 monkeys. This is the tech's private code name for the most elite and least popular pencils in the McCain press corps.
The 12 monkeys are a dozen marquis journalists and political analysis guys from the really important papers and weeklies and new services, and tend to be so totally identical in dress and demeanor as to be almost literally surreal. 12 immaculate and wrinkle free, navy blue blazers, half-windsored ties, pleated chinos, Oxford cloth shirts that even when the jackets come off stay 100% buttoned at collar and sleeves, Cole Haan loafers, and tortoise shell specs they love to take off and nibble the arm of. Plus always a uniform self-seriousness that reminds you of every over-achieving dweeb you ever wanted to kick the ass of in school.
The techs avoid and try to pretty much ignore the 12 monkeys, who in turn treat the techs the way someone in an executive washroom treats the attendant. On return from the smoke break, we pass through a huge, empty, lobby-like space. It takes a long time to traverse this area, 100 yards of nothing but flagstone walls and plaques with the sad, pretentious names of the riverfront hotel's banquet halls and conference rooms-- the Oak Room, the Windsor Room.
But now out here are also half a dozen different members of the campaign press, each 50 feet away from any of the others for privacy and all walking in idle little counterclockwise circles with a cellphone to their ear. These little orbits are the cellular waltz, which is probably the digital equivalent of doodling or picking at yourself as you talk on a regular landline. There's something oddly lovely about the waltz's different circles here, which are of various diameters and stride lengths and rates of rotation, but are all identically counterclockwise and telephonic.
We three slow down a bit to watch. You couldn't not. From above, like if there were a mezzanine, the waltzes would look like the cogs of some strange, diffused machine. Frank C. says he can tell by their faces something's up. Jim C. says what's interesting is that media south of the Equator do the exact same cellular waltz, but that down there all their circles are reversed.
And it turns out, Frank C. was right as usual, that the reason press are dashing out and waltzing urgently in the lobby is that word has apparently started to spread that Mr. Mike Murphy of the McCain 2000 high command is coming down to do a surprise, impromptu press avail regarding a fresh, two-page press release still slightly warm from the Xerox, which two press liaisons are passing out even now, and of which the first page has, in bold caps, "Bush campaign caught red-handed with negative ads-- unethical push polling."
This document is unusual not only because McCain 2000's press releases are normally studies in bland irrelevance-- "McCain to continue campaigning in Michigan today," "McCain has two helpings of potato salad at South Carolina VFW picnic." But also because no less a personage than Mr. Mike Murphy has indeed now just come down to spin this abrupt change of tone in the campaign's rhetoric.
Murphy, who is only 37 but seems older, is the McCain campaign's senior strategist, a professional political consultant who's already had 18 winning senate and gubernatorial campaigns. He's a short, bottom-heavy man, pale in a kind of yeasty way, with baby-fine red hair on a large head and sleepy, turtle eyes behind the same sort of intentionally nerdy horn-rims that a lot of musicians and college kids now wear.
Among political pros, Murphy has the reputation of being, one, smart and funny as hell, and two, a real attack dog working for clients like Oliver North, New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman, and Michigan's own John Engler in campaigns that were absolute operas of nastiness. He's leaning back against the file-and-feed room's wall and is surrounded in 180 degree arc by the 12 monkeys, all of whom have steno notebooks or tiny professional tape recorders out and keep clearing their throats and pushing their glasses up with excitement.
Murphy says he's, quote, "Just swung by to provide the press corps with some context on the strident press release and to give the corps advanced notice that the McCain campaign is also preparing a special response ad which will start airing in South Carolina tomorrow." Murphy uses the words "response" or "response ad" nine times in two minutes. And when one of the monkeys interrupts to ask whether it'd be fair to characterize this new ad as negative, Murphy gives him a long styptic look and spells out very slowly, R-E-S-P-O-N-S-E.
He says that the press release and new ad reflect the McCain 2000 campaign's decision, after much agonizing, to respond to what he says is G. W. Bush's welshing on the two candidates' public handshake agreement in January to run a bilaterally positive campaign. For the past five days, mostly in New York and South Carolina, the shrub has apparently been running ads that characterize McCain's policy proposals in what Murphy terms a, "Willfully distorting way." Plus there's the push polling, a practice which is regarded as the absolute bottom feeder of sleazy campaign tactics.
But the worst, the most obviously unacceptable, Murphy emphasizes, was the shrub standing up at a podium in South Carolina a couple days ago with a wild-eyed and apparently notorious fringe veteran who publicly accused McCain of, quote, "Abandoning his fellow veterans after returning from Vietnam," which Murphy says, even without going into McCain's well-documented personal bio and heroic legislative efforts on behalf of vets for nearly 20 years, is just so clearly over the line of even minimal personal decency and honor, that it pretty much necessitates some sort of response.
The 12 monkeys, who are old pros at this sort of exchange, keep trying to steer Murphy away from what the shrub's done and get him to give a quotable explanation of why McCain himself has decided to run this response ad, a transcript of which the harried press liaisons are now distributing from a fresh copier box, and which reads, in part, "I guess it was bound to happen. Governor Bush's campaign is getting desperate with a negative ad about me. His ad twists the truth like Clinton. We're all pretty tired of that."
The 12 monkeys now point out that, in particular, the "Twist the truth like Clinton," bit seems negative indeed, since in the year 2000, comparing the GOP candidate to Bill Clinton was roughly equivalent to claiming that he wears ladies' underwear while presiding over satanic masses.
While checking their Prolyx equipment and getting ready to board the press bus for McCain's next stop, the GOP Lincoln Day Dinner in Saginaw, the network techs listened to this reporter's summary of the press release and Murphy's comments and confirmed that the shrub has indeed gone negative. Be advised that these network camera and sound guys, who all have worked countless campaigns and who have neither the raging egos of journalists nor the self-interested agenda of the McCain 2000 staff to muddy their perspective, turn out to be way more acute and sensible political analysts than anyone you'll read or see on TV. And their assessment of today's negativity developments is so extraordinarily nuanced and sophisticated that only a small portion of it can be ripped off and summarized here. And the techs now kill the last of the time in the riverfront by coolly analyzing Bush's negativity and McCain's response from a tactical point of view.
Going negative is risky. Countless polls have shown that voters find negativity distasteful in the extreme. And if a candidate is perceived as going negative, it usually costs him. But of course, G. W. Bush is a creature of his campaign advisers. And these advisers are the best that $70 million and the full faith and credit of the GOP establishment can buy. And if Bush 2000 has gone negative, there must be solid political logic behind the move.
Under the techs' lens, this logic turns out to be indeed solid, even brilliant. The shrub's attack leaves McCain with two options. If he chooses not to retaliate, some South Carolina voters will credit McCain for taking the high road. But it could also come off as wimpy and might compromise McCain's image as a tough, take-no-[BLEEP] guy with the balls to take on the Washington cleptocracy.
So McCain pretty much has to strike back, the techs agree. But this is extremely dangerous. For by retaliating negatively, McCain runs the risk of looking like just another ambitious, win-at-any-cost politician. When after all, so much time and effort and money has gone into casting him as the opposite of that. Plus, the CBS cameraman points out that an even bigger reason why McCain can't afford to let the shrub, quote, "Pull him down to his level," is that if Bush then turns around and retaliates against the retaliation, and so then McCain has to rre-retaliate against Bush's retaliation, and so on, then the whole GOP race could quickly degenerate into just the sort of boring, depressing, cynical, charge and counter charge contest that turns voters off and keeps them away from the polls.
And the other techs agree that the really important tactical point here is that John S. McCain cannot afford to have voters get turned off since, after all, his whole strategy is based on exciting people and inspiring them and pulling more voters in, especially people who'd stopped voting because they'd gotten so disgusted and bored with all the negativity and bull-[BLEEP] of politics.
In other words, this reporter proposes to the techs, it's maybe actually in the shrub's own political self-interest to let the GOP primary race get ugly and negative and have voters get so bored and cynical and disgusted with the whole thing that they don't even bother to vote. Well, no, [BLEEP], Sherlock H., the ABC techs, in essence, respond. Good old Frank C. then explaining more patiently that, yes, if there's a low voter turn out, then the majority of the people who get off their ass and do vote will be the die-hard Republicans, meaning the Christian Right and the party faithful. And these are the groups that vote as they're told, the ones controlled by the GOP establishment, an establishment that's got $70 million and 100% of its own credibility invested in the shrub.
CNN's Mark A. posits that this also explains why the amazingly life-like Al Gore, over in the Democratic race, has been so relentlessly negative and depressing in his attacks on Bill Bradley. Since Gore, like the shrub, has his party's establishment behind him with all its organization and money and the die hards who fall into line and vote as they're told. It's in Big Al's interest to draw as few voters as possible into the Democratic primaries. Because the lower the overall turnout, the more the establishment voters' ballots actually count.
Which fact then, in turn, the CBS cameraman says, helps explain why, even though our elected representatives are always wringing their hands and making concerned noises about low voter turn-outs, nothing substantive ever gets done to make politics less ugly or depressing and to actually induce more people to vote. Our elected representatives are incumbents. And low turnouts favor incumbents for the same reason soft money does.
By this time, the techs are on the press bus. And since it's only a 10-minute ride to the Saginaw GOP dinner, they have their cameras down and boom sticks retracted, but all their gear still strapped on, which forces them to sit up uncomfortably straight and wince at bumps. And in the bus' mirrored ceiling, they look even more like sci-fi combat troops on their way to some alien beachhead.
In their opinion, tomorrow's response ad is not a promising start for McCain, especially the "Twist the truth like Clinton" line that the 12 monkeys jumped on Murphy for. This lines too mean. It does not sound high road. It sounds pissed off, aggressive, and it will allow Bush to do a react and now say that it's McCain who has violated the handshake agreement, which the techs say will, of course, be bull-[BLEEP] but that it might be effective bull-[BLEEP]. And that it's McCain's aggressive ad that's giving the shrub the opening to do it.
The tech's basic analysis of the motivation behind the ad's "Twist the truth like Clinton," line is that McCain is genuinely, personally pissed off at the shrub and that he has taken Mike Murphy's leash off and let Murphy do what Murphy does best which is gutter fight. McCain, after all, is known for having a temper. And Jim C. thinks that maybe the truly ingenious thing the shrub's strategists did was to find a way to genuinely piss McCain off and make him want to go negative, even though his staff had to have warned him that this was playing right into Bush's strategists hands.
Jim's analysis suddenly reminds this reporter of the thing in The Godfather where Sonny Corleone's fatal flaw is his temper, which Barzini and Tattaglia exploit by getting Carlo to beat up Connie and makes Sonny so insanely angry that he drives off to kill Carlo and gets assassinated in Barzini's ambush at that tollbooth in the Richmond Parkway. And a taciturn but cinephilic CNN cameraman speculates that the Bush campaign's brain trust may actually have based their whole negative strategy on Barzini's ingenious ploy in The Godfather. Whereupon Frank C. observes that Bush's equivalent to slapping Connie Corleone around was standing up with a wacko vet who claimed that McCain dissed his Vietnam comrades, which at first might have looked stupid and unnecessarily nasty of Bush, but from another perspective might be sheer genius if it made McCain so angry that his desire to retaliate outweighed his political judgment.
Because, Frank C. warns, just watch. This retaliation, and Bush's response to it, and McCain's response to Bush's response-- this will be all that the 12 monkeys and the rest of the press corps are interested in. And if McCain lets things get too ugly, he won't be able to get anybody to pay attention to anything else.
And sure enough, events of the next few days bear out the techs' analysis pretty much 100%. On Tuesday morning on the Radisson's TV in North Savannah, South Carolina, both Today and Good Morning America lead with, "The GOP campaign takes an ugly turn," and show the part of McCain's new ad where he says, "Twist the truth like Clinton."
And sure enough, by midday the shrub has put out a react where he accuses John S. McCain of violating the handshake agreement and going negative and adds that he, the shrub, is personally offended and outraged at being compared to W. J. Clinton. And by Wednesday night, focus polls are showing that South Carolina voters are finding McCain's ad negative and depressing. And the next couple days' polls then have both McCain's support and the primaries projected voter turnout falling like a rock. And the daily press are having to turn out piece after piece about all the endless picayune charges and countercharges. And everyone on the bus is starting to get severely dispirited and bored. And even the 12 monkeys' strides have lost a certain smug spring.
And McCain not only, of course, loses South Carolina, but then a couple weeks later the whole Carlo and Sonny scenario plays out again on super Tuesday, only bigger this time with McCain lashing angrily out at the Christian Right and calling Robertson and Falwell agents of intolerance and basically alienating the whole GOP's die hard right-wing. And why? Because some person or persons unknown had gotten Falwell and Robertson to tape certain anti-McCain remarks and disseminate them via automated phone call to registered voters in key states, remarks so off-the-charts mean and distorted that they pissed McCain off enough that he goes on TV and gives the Christian Right the public finger. While Murphy and the McCain 2000 high command doubtless stand there and bite their wrists in frustration, practically seeing McCain's glossy coupe pull angrily up to that tollbooth.
David Foster Wallace is the author of several books, including Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. This was an edited excerpt of a story that first appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine.
Coming up, how to run a smear campaign in junior high school and how not to run one in a presidential race. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three. When Slime Is Good.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program-- "Character Assassination," true stories to prepare us for the coming battle between George Bush and Al Gore. We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, "When Slime is Good."
Ron Susskind's an author who's been on our show. But years ago he was a political consultant. He says that when he began in politics, he thought there was nothing lower than negative campaigning. And then, in 1980, he learned that sometimes when your opponent attacks, it can actually help you. At the time he was working on John Anderson's campaign for president, Anderson was being attacked by candidate Ronald Reagan and by candidate Jimmy Carter.
The Democrats would say, he's Don Quixote. He's flaky. He's on an ether binge. I mean, they just went after him. And on the Republican side, Anderson is a liberal and is controlled by his wife. That was a big thing that came out.
And the more they attacked, what did it do to Anderson's popularity?
Well, that was the interesting part. The more they attacked, the better it was for us. His poll ratings rose steadily through the summer. Steadily and swiftly. He almost seemed to feel their focus and intensity on him, by virtue of their attack, and say see, they do care about me. They are worried about me. They are attacking me just to prove that. And it doesn't bother me one little bit.
That's interesting. Because as a third party candidate, his big problem was that people might not take him seriously as a threat. And here he's got the two other candidates letting people know he is a threat.
Exactly, by virtue of their focus on him.
Do the attacks do anything else, in terms of people's feeling about a candidate?
Yeah, they do. They do. They provide opportunities where the candidate must be real and genuine and show his or her self to the public. They break through the noise of the canned stuff. And when the attacks come, people sort of snap to attention. Because they figure whether or not the attack is credible, what I'll see now is I'll see candidate X actually respond like a real person, like I would. And it allows for that window, that moment for the voter to actually see the face of something real.
Ron Susskind in Washington, D. C.
Act Four. Who You Gonna Call?
Act Four. "Who You Gonna Call?" Character assassination, you know, runs all through our society. And there is an entire class of consultant who does nothing but help people and companies that are under public attack. Eric Dezenhall is one of these people. He works for a crisis management firm in Washington, D. C.
What is very important for people to understand is that character assassination has become big business. There are a series of folks who package attacks. And they include plaintiffs' lawyers, activist groups, individuals with random axe to grind and who are willing to get on TV and say something bad about either a product or a person. And the media are very, very likely to embrace these attacks. There is a huge infrastructure and distribution channel by which to sell it. For example, when Kathie Lee Gifford was attacked by the magazine, The Globe, where her husband was set up in a hotel room with a stewardess, if that's what you'd like to call her.
A stewardess who was paid by The Globe.
A stewardess who was paid. The very same people who claimed they were disgusted by this type of thing drove up The Globe's sales by 15% that year.
It's interesting to me. One of the things that you argue is that one reason why these kinds of things happen a lot is that we want somebody to be the villain. You write about filling the villain void. And that there's something in us where we want to see somebody brought down.
Yeah. The attack on Kathie Lee Gifford was, of course, engineered by finding a vulnerability with her husband. But there's no question that the target was Kathie Lee Gifford. People were out to get her for a long, long time. And my feeling is, when you get on television day after day and you talk about your perfect marriage and your perfect children, you have a lot of people out there who are saying, I don't have a perfect marriage. I don't have perfect children. Enough with her already. And the public was extremely receptive to any negative information they got from her, about her.
Can we just talk about the strategy used by Kathie Lee Gifford and her husband, Frank, once this news came out? The fact that they let people know that they were hurt, that this hurt their marriage, that this caused them pain, how important is that?
I think the first thing that the Gifford's did, as I recall it, was incorrect, which is to deny that this had happened. Ultimately though, they found out a little uncomfortable fact which is, there was film.
That's right. The Globe staged it very cunningly. First they released the news, and then they got the denials. And then they came out with the video the week later.
Well, that's exactly right. Initially, they denied it. And when there's hard core evidence-- no pun intended-- it's a very, very hard thing to back out from. But the next thing that the Giffords did was absolutely correct. They acknowledged what the most fundamental thing that the public wanted to hear was, which was that they are human and that they are hurt. And one way to get people off your back is to concede that you're human. And that is really what, a lot of times, the goal of these attacks are, to bring you down to our size.
I think that the media understand that there are certain basic things in human nature where the narratives have to be repeated. And the public enjoys seeing someone who they believe has too much fall.
One of the things that's striking about it is, when the attack comes, they are cast as characters in this drama. And at that point, it's almost as if they have to choose what role they want to play and have to give people the satisfaction people would get from a drama. That is, people want to see them take a fall. They have to be contrite. If they're defiant, they won't be playing the character that will actually end the story.
Every news attack is packaged like a traditional Hollywood entertainment. There is a villain. There is a victim. There is a vindicator. And you can either be the villain, the victim, or the vindicator. In this particular case, the Giffords were the villains. They were people who lied to us about the quality of their marriage. The victims, of course, were us, the American public, who were duped by these horrible people. And the vindicator, of course, was The Globe, who came forward to bring this truth, this hideous truth, to us. The Giffords have a choice at that moment. They can either stay the villains or they can become the victims. And neither is a wonderful choice, by the way. And the best choice for them at that point was to come forward and show their humanity by playing the role of the victim.
The thing about an attack is that it must end with a clear and unequivocal conclusion or the public is frustrated. We want total guilt. We want total innocence. The conclusions have to be unequivocal.
What would you advise somebody like Governor Bush to do about the attacks on his record and tenure that are happening now? For example, the vice president is saying that Governor Bush isn't ready for office, that his tax plan and his foreign policy plans are risky, that Texas-- his record in Texas-- is terrible because Texas has substandard health and education policies. The vice president calls Texas the most polluted state in the country. What should George Bush do against that? What are his options?
In order for an attack to work, it doesn't have to be true. It has to be plausible and resonant. And the first thing he has to do is find out which of these attacks is resonating. I think that the biggest attack on Bush that does resonate is this broad notion-- not of this policy or that policy-- but that he is not a guy who has the seasoning to handle this job. And the best thing he can do is demonstrate that he does. And one of the ways to do that, unfortunately, is to go on the attack back against Gore.
Now, if your follow-up question is, are you saying that he should defend by, in effect, attacking-- unfortunately, that is what I'm saying. Whoever attacks wins the market. Whoever attacks gets to the news cycle most quickly. And I think that his best overall response is going to be continuing to attack Gore. And one of the reasons why I think that this campaign is going to be intensely negative is because neither of these guys is likable and can skate on their charm.
Is it possible, when attacked, to respond simply with the truth? Or is it always better to respond with another attack, a counterattack?
I am not speaking as a moralist. I am speaking as a clinician. And as a clinician, I can tell you that I do not see clients that have been immediately forgiven for confessing certain things. Morally, I think that is disquieting. But in terms of reality, as I look over my clients over two decades, I have not seen a correlation in my career between confession and forgiveness.
Hm. Eric, do you feel like there's something Pollyanna-ish about even wanting to get the attacks out of politics? That is, do you feel like, in fact, in a deeper way there's nothing wrong with these attacks in politics?
Well, I don't think that all of these attacks are nearly as destructive and as new as the public likes. I just think, at some level, attacking does ferret out the truth. The problem, in my view, is differentiating between attacks that are a part of debate and attacks that are just plain smears.
But in the case of politics, it seems like the kind of smears that one sees are things that-- they have an element of truth, but how much truth they have is open to debate. For example, George Bush saying about Vice President Gore, "He'll say anything to get elected." Well, there certainly is an element of truth in that. And we all have seen that. And the same thing on the converse. You know, the vice president saying about George Bush, "He isn't seasoned." Well, he isn't seasoned when it comes to all these kinds of policies.
Yeah, I think that these are examples of attacks that are legitimate. The fact is-- these so-called attacks are really a part of a broader debate that get to certain critical questions. Look, I believe that even the questions about Bush's alleged drug use are germane. Because I believe that one of the things that is nagging at a lot of the country-- and this was true of John F. Kennedy as well-- is, is it a healthy thing to have a rich kid who has never had a tough day in his life sitting in the oval office? Whether or not the allegations, one by one, are true isn't as important as the fact that the broader questions are being asked. And frankly, I don't think it's the most unhealthy thing in the world.
Eric Dezenhall of the Nichols-Dezenhall Communications Management Group. He's the author of a book about his craft called, Nail 'Em.
[MUSIC- "WASHINGTON, D.C." BY THE MAGNETIC FIELDS]
Act Five. When Attacks Really Count.
Act Five, "When Attacks Really Count." Though Washington, D. C., you think that's mean? Just remember junior high school. That's when character assassination really hurt. We have this story.
I guess this is about Dave and me, right? Dave and I became friends in fourth grade. And we were friends through sixth grade. And I have to describe him physically, because that's a huge part of his personality. He was, and he still is, an extremely wiry person. Very thin. He looks emaciated. And he also-- his skin is like a jaundiced yellow color. He was always very acned and he just looked sick all the time. He was a very meek, quiet kid, very un-assuming. Nobody ever really noticed him doing anything.
I don't really know how we became friends. We were in class together in grade school. And our favorite group was the Village People. And we used to listen to the Village People all the time and just totally obsess about them. And The Dukes of Hazzard was another one, and Star Wars. Those were very big things.
And as things progressed into fifth grade, it became pretty clear that our friendship was the most intense friendship in the class. Teachers started separating us in the classrooms constantly, like on the first day of school. They wouldn't even think about it. We would talk on the phone at least once a day and for hours. We would just talk for hours.
I basically discovered sexuality through him. And we used to-- I remember the first thing that we did together that was sexual was we went into his parents' bedroom. And we got the J. C. Penney catalog and looked through it and went to the bra and panties section and looked through this. And it was the first time I had ever indulged in this. I always kind of skipped it over.
And then the other thing that we did was we used to play Spin the Bottle in his room. And we would take off an article of clothing for when it would land on us. And it was the first time we'd ever been naked in front of another person except for our parents. And it was petrifying. But it was also just this whole discovery period of just seeing another man naked there.
And it became this whole game that we played often. And we just would revel in the fact of just standing there in front of each other, totally naked, assuming these characters just like-- hi, Mr. Jones, how are you? Nice to meet you. Businessmen and everything, just standing there completely buck naked and so terrified that we were ever going to get caught. Because his parents were always home. They were always in the house and everything and we were just so afraid that someone was going to knock on the door.
The point that it started to change was as we were going into sixth grade. And that's around the time when people start to-- people in sixth grade start to realize that there's a difference between someone who's straight and someone who's gay. And there was just rumblings happening. People were accusing us of being homosexual. We weren't in any way. But we also knew of all the things that we had done with each other, in each other's presence. And "faggot" was like the most derogatory thing you could call somebody. And people were thinking these things.
I think when people started to think that we were gay, we suddenly realized that there was a cool thing and a not cool thing. And we were definitely not cool in the friendship that we were in. And that's also around that time when-- in my town at least, and I think in a lot of small towns-- when sports just become the most important thing in your life. And I was not a good athlete then at all. Dave was a good athlete. And Dave organized a big football party one weekend where we were going to go out there and play football and have a sleepover and then the next day play more football.
Dave just organized this thing unbelievably. He had jerseys printed up with numbers and names on them. He had teams with rosters. He had practice for his team with plays. There was like a playbook. This is for a little football game like three-on-three football or four-on-four football. And every single minute was decided upon beforehand by him as to what we would do-- where we would be, what we would eat, the food we would eat, when we would play football. It was all timed out. He's just so organized and anal retentive about it.
And so when we got out there and played, I don't remember very well, but I can't imagine that I played tremendously well. And there were other really good athletes there. And I was horrible. And I think-- I was thinking about this today. I was trying to think of the moment when everything changed. And I'm almost positive it was that event. It was the football party. And immediately after that, he just totally stopped talking to me.
I remember going into class in seventh grade on the first day of school and him not talking to me and everybody just wondering. I mean, the whole school was wondering why there was this big fight going on between Dave and Bob. And I remember just not having an answer for anybody. I used to tell them to ask Dave. I had no idea. And I remember that, all of a sudden, he just was completely bent on turning everyone against me, the whole school. And he did it very well.
He was the one who formed the "I hate--" they used to call me Cooz then-- and he was the one who formed the "I hate Cooz" club. He never did anything to me himself. He would never come up to me and make fun of me. He would never come up to me and hit me. But he would just get everyone else to do it for him. I remember one time in the lunchroom, Sam saying, have you ever been caught masturbating?
And of course, either answer is-- you damn yourself if you answer yes or if you answer no. And I remembered hearing Dave tell him to ask me that. He was just able to organize people into these different factions. He was able to shift their focus really well. But from a really guarded position far away. He would just say, go over to Cooz and just shove him into a locker. And they'd go do it. People would make fun of the way that I chewed at lunch. People would make fun of the way that I laughed. People would make fun of the way that I coughed, that I sneezed. But that makes it even sound less violent than it was. It was just a mocking. It was a very pointed mocking on everyone's part.
I remember sitting alone at the lunch table with no one to talk to and just wanting so badly for no one to turn their attention to me because I knew that the attention would be negative. I remember just not understanding what was going on. I had been in such a sweet position with this person. We had such a good friendship and then all of a sudden everyone had just turned against me.
That was the worst period, I think, of my entire life, was that period. I used to go home from school and cry after school. I used to go to my dog and hug my dog and say, you are my only friend in the world.
I remember one thing that he did was-- there was this guy, Mike, in my class. And Mike was, what we called in my hometown, a scummer, which meant that he was on welfare. He perhaps didn't have a pair of pants for every day of the week. He was very smart, which was a strike against him at that age. And he just didn't fit in. He was a real geek.
And so Dave organized this fight between Mike and I, a fist fight to prove who was the bigger faggot. Whoever would lose was the bigger faggot. And he positioned us, he spun it so there was no way I could not fight. If I didn't have this fight, then things would just get worse for me. Things would get worse. Mike was at the bottom of the barrel. And I was there with him. And Dave had to prove that I was below him. And so he organized this whole fight. And everyone in the class was like, are you going to fight Mike? Are you going to fight Mike? And I finally just conceded and I conceded to fight him.
And Dave organized the whole event. It was to happen at this playground. And we went. And he tried to get this whole audience to come and see it. Unfortunately, nobody came but him. Well, I guess, fortunately. Nobody came but him and one other person. So Mike and I went there. And neither of us wanted to fight each other. Neither of us had any reason in the world to fight each other. So I just remember standing there facing him just laughing, just like, what are we supposed to do?
We're standing here. We've been forced into this just to save our own souls. And now we have to inflict pain on each other. And we stood there for the longest time and Dave kept trying to push us into fighting. He was saying, come on, just throw a punch, just throw a punch. Just start.
And we waited for the longest time. And then finally, I was just like, this is ridiculous. So I went up and I shoved him. And then we started to fight. And we weren't really into fighting. But we had to do it then. And I pushed him at one point and he fell backwards and he hurt his wrist. And I got on top of him and I held his wrist. And I remember saying to him, do you give up? And he wouldn't give up. And I was holding his wrists back.
And each time, I kept asking him if he was going to give up. And he kept saying, no. And each time he'd say no I'd bend his wrist back a little bit more. And he was just crying in pain. And I kept saying, I'm going to bend it back. I'm going to bend it back. I'm going to bend it back, thinking, I don't want to break this person's wrist. I have no reason to break this person's wrist. And I was faced at that moment with either giving up and just getting kicked even more or going ahead with really hurting this person and hoping that it would save me in some way. And I broke his wrist.
He came in the next day, into school, with a cast on. I don't know how his family paid for his cast. And everybody saw that and said, you idiot, Cooz, what did you do? You idiot. And they just-- it made it even worse for me. It just made it worse.
Dave, he had no reason for this. He didn't understand it himself, I don't think. It was a complete visceral reaction to an allegation of homosexuality, I think. And so he, in order to preserve himself, just pointed at someone else and said, they're the one. And everybody just turned with him.
And I think that people that age are looking for things like this. Those are grades where you are forming factions. You're forming groups. And the easiest way to be part of a group is to just point at somebody else, I think, and say, I'm not like him.
I went to the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts in my junior year, the summer between my junior and senior year. And I remember very clearly, there was a moment at Governor's school where I thought that the clouds just cleared and everything became possible. It was after lunch and we were going out of the cafeteria and I'd forgotten my bag in the cafeteria. And I went and I said, oh just wait for me one second. I just want to go get my bag. And I went down to the cafeteria and I got my bag. And I came back up and they were still there waiting for me. And I remember, so distinctly, remembering-- oh my god, these people, they waited for me. That meant so much to me because I felt like, there are people out there. And I'm not this idiot. I'm not this geek. I'm not a person who everyone should hate. I'm actually a pretty good human being and people like me.
Bob Cucuzza is now a filmmaker and does theatre in New York. He spoke with Paul Tough.
Jack E. Robinson
And then literally, within 24 hours of at least, of putting our name forward, we were hit with a withering attack.
Indeed you were. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio International.