John Brock: Dirty Politics gaining ground but nothing new to the South
Published Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Now that the conventions are over we can expect a down and dirty political scene from now until Election Day. Most of the dirty work will be carried out by third-party PAC groups and others. The actual candidates will try to remain mostly above the fray. But time will tell if they are successful.
Our state’s past reveals no shortage of dirty politics. A few years ago, chairman of the Democrat Party and gadfly Richard Harpootlian opined that he thought Republican Senatorial hopeful Lindsey Graham appeared to be “a little light in his shoes”.
Graham’s people immediately complained Harpootlian was implying that Graham was gay because the expression “light in his shoes” is a well-known metaphor for homosexuality. Harpootlian immediately claimed his innocence and lamely insisted that he was only reacting to another politician’s emphasis that Strom Thurmond’s shoes would be hard to fill. I think he knew exactly what he was doing. He just hoped that he would get away with it. Otherwise, the Democrats might need a better-informed spokesperson more familiar with common English vernacular. This has not been the only time this Democrat has engaged in innuendo. But he is not alone.
This kind of political antic is no different from those of a South Carolina Republican, Lee Atwater. Lee was a prime example of a master of insinuation before he went straight and then went off to meet the Master. Atwater, I have been informed, didn’t care if he was caught or not, for by the time the words were exposed, the damage had been done and his sights were set on the next victim.
Southern politics in the past is filled with shady campaign shenanigans.
One of the most celebrated cases of smear politics happened years ago in Florida although the Sunshine State is not exactly a Southern state. This campaign has been featured in a book entitled: “Dirty Politics: From 1776 to Watergate” by Michael Dorman.
Congressman George Smathers was running against the incumbent Claude Pepper for the U.S. Senate. I had dinner once with Ladybird Johnson and Sen. Smathers (He had beaten Pepper and was a Senator by then). Smathers was an engaging, personable man with a lot of charisma but I told my wife later that he was the sort I really would not want to turn my back on. Neither should his wife because as I drove him back to the airport, I thought he showed an inordinate interest in the local females. He was, after all, a close friend of the Kennedys — but that’s another story.
Back to the one at hand.
The political process was bathed in innuendo when Smathers campaigned against the incumbent Claude Pepper. Anti-communism was running rampant in that age and Smathers took to calling his opponent by the name “RED Pepper”, leaving his audience to ascertain the real meaning. The tactic took a heavy toll on Senator Pepper’s campaign.
Smathers also appealed to his less sophisticated audiences by using terms that they did not know or at best did not understand. Using a low-toned, disgusted voice, he would refer to Sen. Pepper as a “Sexagenarian!” There is no way of telling how his audiences took this message but surely a few of them realized that this simply meant that Pepper was a 60-something-year-old.
In the pretext of revealing a dark family secret, Smathers would confide to his audiences in a subversive monotone that Pepper’s family closet contained at least one sister who had run off to New York and became, of all things, a “Thespian”. Of course, this sounded sinister to the public and I wonder how many of them took the time to look up the word and discover that “Thespian” meant no more than being a theatrical actor/actress.
Smathers also spread the word that Pepper’s brother was a practicing Homo Sapiens! Although the word sounds sexual and was apparently taken as such by many, perhaps at least a few voters realized the term means no more than the brother was a human being.
The campaign was successful for Smathers and he went on to win the general election. Pepper’s senatorial days ended forever but he did later win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and became an outspoken advocate for senior citizens.
Are the dirty political tactics of the past coming back to haunt us? If so — watch out! Words like homogeneous, sextant, penal, niggardly, homogenized; etc. might be thrust upon the political scene.
However, on second thought, it doesn’t seem to make any difference anymore in our “political sexually correct” desensitized world of today.
It might even help a candidate get elected.
John Brock is a retired college professor and newspaper editor/publisher who lives in Georgetown County. He can be reached by mail at this newspaper or by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.