CHARLESTON, S.C. The American presidential race is now being fought in a state so renowned for below-the-belt, tire-iron-to-the-kneecap politics that its most famous political operative wound up writing a death-bed mea culpa.
Welcome to South Carolina.
“We play hardball,” says David Woodard, a campaign veteran who now teaches at Clemson University.
“But I don’t think that some of the things of the past really apply as much today.”
The list of alleged dirty tricks in the current primaries amounts to child’s play, from a historical standpoint.
This week’s scandals include: a cease-and-desist letter from Donald Trump over a Ted Cruz ad; a cheesy doctored photo showing Marco Rubio shake hands with the president; and a fake Facebook page that left the impression a Republican lawmaker had switched his endorsement to Cruz.
Compare that to some of the low-blow lowlights of the past.
The state is so self-conscious of its reputation for sleazy tactics that the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper has set up a special site for tips about dirty primary tricks.
The worst in recent memory were in 2000. John McCain was pounded by rumours, spread with flyers and fake polls. Pushed by groups aligned with George W. Bush, they included made-up tales of drug use in McCain’s household; an allegation that his Jewish friend hated Christians; and a story that he’d had children with prostitutes.
In fact, McCain and his wife had adopted a daughter from Bangladesh.
“In emails, faxes, flyers, postcards, telephone calls, and talk radio, groups and individuals circulated all kinds of wild rumours about me,” McCain recalled in a memoir.
“The primary became a foul brew of resentment, hate, and sleaze.”
A former aide recalls feeling deflated one day when she stepped onto the campaign bus and saw flyers about illegitimate children: “The damage was very clear to us ‚Äî John McCain was done in South Carolina,” Nancy Snow recalled in an interview.
Conservative radio host Michael Graham says McCain was too moderate to win South Carolina anyway, and in the long run would still have lost the nomination to Bush.
But he remembers callers flooding his switchboard with wild rumours: ‘’I was calling them out ‚Äî ‘Where are you getting this crap from?’ People said, ‘Oh, I dunno, I heard it at my church.’’’
Bush and his aide Karl Rove had been groomed by South Carolina’s most legendary operative Lee Atwater, who managed the original President Bush’s 1988 campaign.
As he died of cancer a few years later, Atwater wrote an apology to Michael Dukakis for thinly-disguised racial dog-whistling in ads that blamed him for a rape and murder committed by Willie Horton, while out of prison on a weekend pass.
An early contemporary of Atwater’s recalls disliking him at first. They eventually patched things up, but Hal Poe was irked when they met in the early ‘70s ‚Äî by some of his tactics, and by the fact that to Atwater politics seemed more about funny business and less about the business of government.
He recalls Atwater holding press conferences to announce great new poll results for his side ‚Äî with one small problem.
“There’d been no poll. It was all a fabrication,” said Poe, who’d preceded Atwater as chairman of the state’s college Republicans.
“Lee would do absolutely anything. He had no qualms.”
Atwater’s greatest coup may have been convincing the state to move up the primary date in 1988 to make South Carolina the first-in-the-south contest, giving it enormous influence it retains today.
It also just happened to give a boost to his boss. Bush had the state’s political machine with him, and it gave them an early victory just before Super Tuesday, and big momentum over Bob Dole.
Atwater’s own mentor was the memorable John Carbaugh.
According to Poe, Carbaugh taught his young protege how to rig a poll. That’s before he moved to Washington ‚Äî where he later made news for running a so-called “shadow State Department,” which covertly supported right-wing causes in Latin America.
But this entire cast of characters was positively benign compared to an earlier giant of the state’s politics. Governor from 1890 to 1894, then a U.S. senator, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman was an anti-establishment, economic-populist. There’s still a statue of him at the state house.
He was also, by any objective definition, a domestic terrorist.
For a while, after the Civil War, blacks could vote in the South. Many African-Americans were elected to statewide and national office. People like Tillman violently stopped that.
The proudly pro-lynching politician bragged about organizing a militia that used murder and intimidation that chased blacks from the polls ‚Äî so whites eventually took charge, introduced new Jim Crow laws, and established a stranglehold on the ballot box for nearly a century.
Today, it’s fake Facebook pages and accusations of deceit. A political scientist here says the state’s reputation for dirty tricks was well-deserved but might be exaggerated now.
“It was really very nasty in 2000,” said Robert Oldendick of USC. “But it’s unlikely that we’ll see that level of nastiness again in this campaign.”
These days with cellphone-cams, caller ID and social media, he said, fake flyers and push-polls would be immediately outed and the culprits hunted down.
Also, he wonders, what’s left to whisper in a whisper-campaign?
The Republican frontrunner is a thrice-married trash-talker who’s frequently discussed his sex life in past interviews and books; swears on stage; admits he funded Democratic campaigns to win favours; and publicly argues with the Pope.
“And on the Democrat side,” Oldendick said, “what are you going to say about Bernie Sanders? That he’s a socialist?”
In 2016 so far, whisper campaigns are out. Talking boldly is in.