If you’ve got a nice kitchen sink, guard it well. A surrogate for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney (or someone pretending to be) could be lurking in the shrubbery under the kitchen window, plotting to scavenge something to throw into the campaign.
It’s the season of the October surprise.
If you see a woman in red, it’s probably Gloria Allred, the Los Angeles lawyer for scorned women just arrived from hell with their furies and long memories. Mzz Allred promised the president she had a doozie for this October. The doozie so far looks like only bitter recriminations of a scorned floozie, but the October-surprise season is still young.
Mzz Allred is peddling the story of a contentious divorce of 25 years ago and paints Mitt Romney as the villain of the piece because he testified for the husband about the value of stock shares in the settlement, to which the wife agreed and later decided she didn’t like.
This tastes like pretty thin soup, something the National Enquirer might have found in a musty bound volume in the basement of the courthouse. Husbands and wives have been known to shout in divorce court. That’s about the value of a kitchen sink. You heave it over the side and hope it hits somebody. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t.
The origin of the October surprise lies in the 1968 campaign, when Lyndon Johnson announced a “peace breakthrough” in Vietnam and halted the bombing of North Vietnam to guarantee an end of the war and “coincidentally” assure the triumph of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. The veep got a little bounce, but Richard Nixon won by a margin of less than a percentage point.
Four years later, the Vietnam War was still alive and well, and Nixon and George McGovern were fighting it out over who could end it. On Oct. 26, just 12 days before the November election, Henry Kissinger, the president’s national security guru, announced, “Peace is at hand.” Peace, such as it was, would wait for three more years, but Nixon won 49 states and defeated Mr. Magoo by 20 points. The president would have won anyway, but “Peace is at hand” might have contributed to the landslide.
In late October 1980, the Iranian government and President Carter announced that Iran wouldn’t release the American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran until after the November election. This was not much of a surprise, but it fed fevered speculation in Washington that the Reagan campaign had made a secret deal with Iran to delay their release to avoid giving Mr. Carter the happy surprise.
There actually was a January surprise, when the hostages were released minutes after Reagan took the oath of office. The controversy over what had happened lasted for years, but two congressional investigations concluded there was no deal, and best of all, we didn’t have to give the hostages back.
The vultures were not finished. Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s defense secretary, was accused of criminal complicity in a deal to send missiles to fight Saddam Hussein, which he opposed, and a special prosecutor with not much to show for his investigation pursued Mr. Weinberger after he left office and indicted him on the eve of the 1992 election, hoping to prevent George H.W. Bush’s re-election. Mr. Bush was defeated and gave Mr. Weinberger a full pardon the day before he left office.
Since then, the October surprises have become smaller stuff. On the eve of the 2000 election, there was the news that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunken driving 24 years earlier, when he was young and callow. He won anyway. Eight years after that, The Associated Press discovered that Barack Obama’s aged Aunt Zeituni Onyango was living in Boston as an illegal immigrant from Kenya. Her nephew won anyway.
This year the October surprises, such as they are, are — so far — even less consequential. Donald Trump promised something about Mr. Obama’s college transcripts if the president would release them for a $5 million contribution to his favorite charity. A man went to the Romney campaign with “proof” that Mr. Obama scored cocaine hits in college, and the Romney campaign told him to get lost.
All we’ve seen this year are frail skeletons from closets long since abandoned, and Mzz Allred’s well-done nothingburger from an ancient divorce proceeding. She should stick to chasing more promising ambulances. One of them might have a kitchen sink inside.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.