WASHINGTON – Donald Segretti says there's no second place in politics. Candidates either win or lose. And,sometimes,dirty tricks play a part.
Segretti,a political operative for the Committee to Re-elect the President during Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign,had a role in the Watergate scandal.
In 1974,he served 4½ months in prison after pleading guilty to three misdemeanor counts of distributing illegal campaign literature.
But Segretti,now a lawyer in Orange County,Calif.,said dirty political tactics didn't start with Watergate. Believe it or not,they go back to the Founding Fathers.
“Unfortunately,they work,” Segretti said. “Campaigns get a lot of problems,and it backs up on them. Most political scientists will say when you look at the polling and the numbers,dirty tactics tend to work.”
His best-known trick was a letter forged on letterhead of senator Edmund Muskie,D-Maine,falsely claiming that former senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson,D-Wash.,fathered an illegitimate child with a 17-year-old girl. Both were candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972.
Segretti said campaigns fight so many rumors they can't address them all. Barack Obama's campaign started a Web site earlier this month to fight back. The site,fightthesmears.com,addresses rumors,including that Obama is a Muslim and that he's hiding his birth certificate.
The site features a copy of his birth certificate and a CNN video that shows the school he attended in Indonesia was not a madrasa,a radical Islamic learning environment.
Obama has even faced allegations of drug use and other misdeeds by a convicted felon who was arrested immediately after his Washington news conference in June. Larry Sinclair,of Duluth,Minn.,admitted he is a recreational drug user and a convicted felon for writing bad checks,forging checks and using stolen credit cards. He was arrested on a Delaware warrant on a bad check charge. Sinclair is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday.
An e-mail also has been floating around listing “50 lies” about Obama. But snopes.com,which researches so-called urban legends,debunks all 50.
Segretti also co-chaired John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign in Orange County. He said McCain took similar abuse that year.
“Well I think you had a lot of very nasty campaigning against John McCain and in particular in South Carolina,” Segretti said.
Segretti said rumors surfaced that McCain was a traitor when he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. McCain's campaign launched a new Web page this week to respond to rumors about his military service.
Segretti said others claimed McCain's daughter,Bridget McCain,is an illegitimate black child of the Arizona senator. The rumor was that the 16-year-old girl's skin was too dark for her to be from Bangladesh,where the McCains adopted her.
Dennis Bailey,general counsel for the Alabama Press Association,said present-day candidates have an easier time than politicians in the early days of the United States.
He said newspapers that supported a certain candidate often printed fictitious stories about their opponents.
“It was worse back then,” Bailey said. “You had Jefferson papers or Madison papers,which wrote the most horrible things about their opponents' wives,children and families.”
Bailey said the struggle for lawmakers is how “to have free speech about politics and then endure false,fraudulent and last-minute campaign tactics that may affect an election and turn out to be totally made up by fictitious people you can never track down to hold responsible.”
Bailey added that newspapers have developed higher ethics in the last 60 years,so the situation has improved.
As with the Obama lies,technology has changed how dirty tricks are played.
“I think the Internet has made a big difference in many ways,” Segretti said. “It's made a big difference in fundraising,obviously. It's made a big difference in organization.
“You have new technology,you have all the blogs and the Internet now,so that circulates these things much faster,” Segretti added. “The mainstream media tends to stay away from them,but now you have sort of open fear with all the bloggers.”
John Kerry experienced the most recent smearing in a presidential election. The 2004 Democratic nominee for president was “swiftboated,” which became a verb as a result.
Coined because of allegations by Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth,it describes how the group attacked Kerry's military service as a Swift boat officer on the Mekong River.
A Swift boat is a small,shallow draft water vessel the Navy used for counterinsurgency operations during the Vietnam War.
The group spent approximately $22.6 million during the 2004 election cycle in television and advertisements and two mail pieces that expressly advocated Kerry's defeat.
In 2006,the Federal Election Commission fined the group almost $300,000 for not registering as a federal political action committee.