It is not my objective in this post to write a comprehensive history of political campaign dirty tricks. I do not admire them; and, as the recent successful prosecutions in the 2002 New Hampshire Senate election phone jamming scandal have shown, dirty tricks can be just plain criminal. Important Democrats are now investigating why the Republican perpetrators called the White House so much at the time of the crimes and why the national Republican Party has paid more than $2.5 million in legal bills in the case.
Personal attacks have long been a staple of American election campaigns; but the relatively benign pranks played by Democrat Dick Tuck may have influenced his most famous victim, Republican Richard Nixon, to hire Donald Segretti, who ended up going to prison in 1974 for distributing illegal campaign literature, including a fake letter containing false allegations on Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie's letterhead.
Next in the pantheon of Republican dirty tricksters came Lee Atwater, who in 1980 began to use fake telephone surveys ("push polling") to disseminate derogatory information to voters, last-minute attack letters, and a fake reporter in a news conference to reveal a candidate's childhood psychiatric history. Atwater also helped devise and implement the GOP's new Southern Strategy to capture white voters during the era of civil rights backlash. By 1984 he was running a dirty tricks operation against vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro; and in the 1988 presidential campaign for the elder George Bush, Atwater approved the Willie Horton attack ad project against Michael Dukakis. During that time, the younger George Bush became "great friends" with Atwater. A fine 1989 profile of Lee Atwater can be read here.
Karl Rove also became a friend and a student of Atwater's techniques. An excellent 2003 New Yorker Magazine personal and political profile on Rove can be read here.
Subsequent PR coups like the Swift Boat Veterans campaign against John Kerry and the fake National Guard memo (supposedly) against Bush are thought to resemble Atwater's tactics, also distinguished by the lack of paper trails to their instigators, although modern commentators are more likely to speculate about the "Mark of Karl Rove."
Back to the real objective of this post. Lee Atwater died of an inoperable brain tumor in 1991; but before he died, "he converted to Catholicism and, in an act of repentance, issued a number of public and written apologies to individuals whom he had attacked during his political career." I'm going to post a picture of Lee as might appear on one of those modern tombstones; and below that I'm going to post a quote from his Life Magazine article a month before he died, as his epitaph:
"My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The '80s were about acquiring -- acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul."