Much will be said in the months and years to come about the long, strange election of 2000. Unfortunately, one crucial point is likely to be overlooked: That this election saw the “politics of spin” rise to unprecedented heights of shamelessness.
The “politics of spin” is a nice American euphemism for a very un-American form of political combat: propaganda and disinformation, “instant response” teams, “opposition research” hounds, “war rooms,” “permanent campaigns” and, of course, “spin doctors,” who spin and spin and spin and never go “off message.” The point is not to govern but to deceive the public and to destroy the opposition. That’s why it’s called “spin”; that’s why it’s called a “war room.” And until President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, the United States had never seen anything quite like it.
At times, Mr. Gore’s politics of spin was more laughable than sinister. Before his first debate with George W. Bush, Mr. Gore invited “real people,” as he called them, to attend his rehearsals and to pose with him for the media. “Real people,” please. Did Mr. Gore think he lived in the “People’s Republic of America”? Did he borrow this ploy from one of Leonid Brezhnev’s dusty old play books?
In a democracy, there should be no distinction between political leaders and those they represent. But perhaps I-want-to-fight-for-the-people Al revealed more than he intended when he met with his “real people” namely, that he did not think very highly of the people except as props to his own political ambitions.
Then there was Mr. Gore’s and running mate Joseph I. Lieberman’s entirely scripted conference call with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and Sen. Tom Daschle during the post-election Florida battle. Mr. Gore wanted to send the message that the Democratic leadership was fully behind his election challenge, so he somehow got Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Daschle to read prepared lines over the phone with TV cameras running. It was like watching state-run television, and the thing was so transparent as to be sur-real. How degrading to Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Daschle, and how contemptuous of the American people for whom the whole thing was staged.
But Mr. Gore’s politics of spin was not always so hackneyed and benign. During the Democratic primaries, in a televised debate, he incredibly accused his rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley of countenancing racial profiling. Later in the presidential campaign, through a TV ad produced by the NAACP that Mr. Gore refused to disown, Mr. Bush was compared with the racist thugs who brutally murdered James Byrd Jr. Apparently, the bigger and more egregious the lie the better.
Here is Mr. Gore’s modus operendi, as reported by The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz. When it became clear that Florida’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris was going to certify the election for Mr. Bush, Mr. Gore asked his deputy campaign manger Mark Fabiani, “What do we know about her?” “She’s very partisan,” Mr. Fabiani replied. “Does the press know that?” Mr. Gore asked, and thus did Mr. Fabiani have his marching orders: Destroy Mrs. Harris.
Mr. Fabiani with the aid of Mr. Gore’s press secretary, Chris Lehane, quickly spun into action, faxing and e-mailing negative material on Mrs. Harris to the press. Mr. Lehane went so far as to denounce Mrs. Harris as a hack, a Jeb Bush toady, even a “Soviet commissar.”
And just who are Mr. Fabiani and Mr. Lehane? Mr. Gore’s “plumbers” are graduates of Harvard Law School, where “the best and brightest” apparently now go to study not the rule of law but the art of smear and slander.
Of course, the biggest lie of all, which Mr. Gore and his Harvard lawyers repeated ad nauseum was that they just wanted all the votes counted in Florida. If you say something often enough maybe just maybe the public will begin to believe it. Or so Mr. Gore and his Harvard lawyers hoped. Thus said they, over and over again, “we just want to count every vote,” but all the while, they fought in the courts to count something called dimpled chads in majority Democratic districts only. They were not counting all the votes but creating new votes where none had previously existed. It was a fantastic performance and enough to leave anyone in a spin.
Now, the politics of spin might sound harmless enough. But, in fact, spin is the enemy of democracy. It attempts to manipulate the people rather than guide them. It knowingly disseminates false information rather than seeking to educate the public about the issues of the day. It aims at the destruction of a political opponent’s reputation rather than honestly debating positions on the issues. It recognizes “no controlling legal authority” beyond itself.
To be sure, the politics of spin has been practiced by Republicans as well as by Democrats. But none did it so well as Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore, and none ever attempted to use it to overturn an election. If George W. Bush really wants to bring a change to Washington, he must restore the trust on which our democracy depends. For when spinners and propagandists come to play, “We the People” cease to rule.
Adam Wolfson is executive editor of the Public Interest.