How to Steal an Election
by Andrew Gumbel
www.alternet.org, February 15,
Americans cling to an idealized image
of our political integrity, but a look at how we run our elections
tells a very different tale.
[Editor's Note: This is an edited excerpt from Steal This Vote
by Andrew Gumbel, published by Nation Books.]
If you do everything, you'll win. -- Lyndon
A few days before the November 2004 election,
Jimmy Carter was asked what would happen if, instead of flying
to Zambia or Venezuela or East Timor, his widely respected international
election monitoring team was invited to turn its attention to
the United States. His answer was stunningly blunt. Not only would
the voting system be regarded as a failure, he said, but the shortcomings
were so egregious the Carter Center would never agree to monitor
an election there in the first place. "We wouldn't think
of it," the former president told a radio interviewer. "The
American political system wouldn't measure up to any sort of international
standards, for several reasons."
What, after all, was to be done with a
country whose newest voting machines, unlike Venezuela's, couldn't
even perform recounts? A country where candidates, in contrast
to the more promising emerging democracies of the Caucasus or
the Balkans, were denied equal, unpaid access to the media? There
were a number of reasons, in the sharply partisan atmosphere surrounding
the Bush-Kerry race, to wonder whether campaign conditions didn't
smack more of the Third World than the First. Every day, newspapers
recounted stories of registration forms being found in garbage
cans, or of voter rolls padded with the names of noncitizens,
fictional characters, household pets, and the dearly departed.
The Chicago Tribune, a paper that knows its voter fraud, having
won a Pulitzer for its work on the infamous Daley machine, found
181,000 dead people on the registration lists of six key battleground
Bush opponents were all too inclined to
believe, in fact, that the Republicans were about to steal the
presidency, just as they believed it had been stolen the last
time. The Republicans, for their part, laughed this off as conspiratorial
nonsense, but they also weren't shy about announcing how hard
or how dirtily they were prepared to fight if it came down to
another Florida-style tug-of-war. Long Island's GOP congressman
Pete King, caught on camera by the documentary maker Alexandra
Pelosi during a White House function on election day, bragged
even as the first polls were closing that Bush had already won.
When Pelosi asked him how he knew, he answered, perhaps jokingly,
perhaps not: "It's all over but the counting. And we'll take
care of the counting."
Election day itself, at least in the battleground
states, was a deeply jarring experience for America's trusting
majority, which had led itself to believe that all was for the
best in the best of all possible democracies. Everyone bristled
with suspicion and mutual mistrust. The Republicans accused the
Democrats of trying to sneak ineligible voters to the polls and
threatened to deploy official challengers to sniff out the mischief
-- something much discussed ahead of time but that ultimately
failed to materialize on any scale, perhaps because of a flurry
of negative publicity stirred up on the eve of the election.
The Democrats, meanwhile, could barely
keep up with their own seemingly endless list of grievances. Across
the country, voters in urban, heavily African American precincts
complained their polling places had far too few voting machines
to accommodate the crowds, creating lines as long as seven or
eight hours toward the end of the day and deterring an unknown
number of voters. In suburban Cincinnati, observers erupted in
fury when they and the media were thrown out of county election
headquarters for the duration of the vote count. They were told
there had been a terrorist threat, but the FBI later denied all
knowledge of it.
The poisoned atmosphere scarcely improved
as Bush was declared the winner, with a comfortable popular margin
of well over three million and a lead of more than one hundred
thousand in Ohio. After the most hotly contested election in a
generation, many of the president's detractors simply refused
to believe it could be so.
Statistical analyses of varying degrees
of professional competence also sought to bring out the numbers
behind the numbers, pointing to inconsistencies and fluke occurrences
in a number of states to make the case that Kerry had somehow
been cheated. In Florida, well-known voting rights activist Bev
Harris claimed to have found the backup data to Volusia County's
computer tabulation machines sitting in garbage bags ready for
disposal, the suspicion being that county officials might have
falsified the official count and then set about destroying the
evidence. But she never actually produced the allegedly discarded
data, or even the videotapes she said she had made of her find.
Whatever the merits of these unsubstantiated
claims, the suspicion and rancor they portended were clearly at
variance with America's idealized image of its own political integrity.
All the high-minded talk on the Kerry campaign trail of creating
a "more perfect Union" was manifestly being undermined
by a noisy minority of Kerry supporters who fervently believed
the Union had been hijacked and perverted by a ruthless cabal
of cheats and crooks. On the Republican side, the anti-tax guru
Grover Norquist opined that the Democrats should learn to calm
down and accept their ever-dwindling minority status with equanimity
and grace -- a not-so subtle way of telling them to roll over
and play dead now that the big boys were in charge.
It all seemed so strange. Until the Florida
meltdown of 2000, conventional wisdom would have had us believe
the machinery of American democracy ran smoothly and peacefully,
that victors played fair, and that the vanquished conceded graciously.
Now, seemingly out of nowhere, it was open season for frauds,
manipulators, corrupt election officials, dishonest voting machine
manufacturers, bully-boy winners, and paranoid sore losers. Where
did they come from so suddenly?
The more things change...
In truth, the 2004 election was far from
an aberration. Nothing has been more normal, over the past two
hundred-plus years, than for one side in an American election
to push, shove, and strong-arm its way across the finishing line,
praising the strength and fairness of the process as it goes,
while the other side stares forlornly at the inevitability of
defeat and yelps in frustration about the perpetration of an outrageous
theft that threatens the very fabric of the nation. This pattern
is hardly good for a democracy (though it is certainly better,
if transparency and fair play are lacking, to have a tightly fought
contest and relatively high turnout than a moribund one and a
foregone conclusion). Equally, it should not come as a surprise,
given the tempestuous history of elections in this country. John
Quincy Adams stole the presidency from under the nose of Andrew
Jackson in 1824, and Rutherford B. Hayes stole it again, even
more brazenly, from Samuel Tilden in 1876. George W. Bush no more
deserved to win Florida in 2000 than John F. Kennedy deserved
to win Illinois in 1960. And that's just the presidency, a far
more serenely contested office than the often ferocious dogfights
at the state or local level.
At different times in American history,
the sanctity of the ballot box has been violated by intimidation,
kidnapping, bloodshed, bribery, embezzlement, intoxication, under-the-table
bargaining, stuffed voter rolls, creative vote-counting, and,
above all, grotesque bureaucratic incompetence and corruption.
Ballots have been bought and sold on the open market, stolen,
forged, spoiled, and tossed into lakes, rivers, and oceans. In
1868 the Cincinnati Gazette reported there were men "who
would think no more of going to the polls and voting without being
paid for it, than a cow does of going to her rack when there is
no fodder in it." In these days of wholesale rather than
retail politics, the money is more likely to be spent on deceptive
television advertising or wholesale character assassination (or,
as emerged in the wake of the 2004 race, paying pliant television
commentators to use their airtime as undisclosed White House publicity
puffs), but pockets of vote purchasing persist nonetheless. In
rural Texas, "vote whores" paid by the political parties
still hand out cash or favors in exchange for support on election
There is nothing new, either, about technological
miracle solutions that turn all too quickly to bitter disappointment.
Before electronic voting, punch cards were hailed as the salvation
of American democracy, even though they habitually lost up to
5 percent of the votes entrusted to them. Before punch cards came
lever machines, which proved less impregnable than their manufacturers
claimed and couldn't be double-checked, because they, too, did
not provide a paper backup. Before lever machines came the innovation
of the secret ballot itself -- an unimpeachable contribution to
electoral democracy, one would have thought, except that it was
shamelessly abused as a battering ram to disenfranchise half the
electorate at a time when universal suffrage, far from being trumpeted
as a great American virtue, was widely deemed to be deleterious
to the health and economic well-being of the nation.
Some people might think that the days
of elections fought illegally, won unfairly, and lost ungraciously
belong to some distant past, but really they never went away.
True, polling places and election offices tend to be calmer than
they were, say, in Kansas City in 1946, when a notorious local
gangster and election fixer named Morris "Snag" Klein
raided the Jackson County courthouse under cover of darkness,
blew open a safe, and removed crucial evidence supporting the
indictments of sixty-one people, himself included, on fraud charges
relating to a dirty congressional primary.
The decline of big-city machine politics
and the growing complexity of the technology of voting have also
made it less common for election officials from one party to bribe,
twist, intimidate, or cut deals with their counterparts on the
other side -- or, for that matter, to arrange for them to be kidnapped,
Chicago-style, for the duration of voting hours, or to slip Ex-Lax
in their coffee so they would be otherwise engaged during the
most important phase of the count. Gone are the days when Democrats
in certain Baltimore wards would arrange for the voting machines
to "break down" during the peak hours of Republican
attendance at polling stations, then magically right themselves
when the union boys showed up in force.
But it is important not to confuse an
outward appearance of calm with transparency or fairness. Take,
for example, the governor's race in Alabama in 2002, when the
Democratic incumbent, Don Siegelman, appeared to have won by a
narrow margin, only to be undone by the sudden discovery of a
computer glitch in rural Baldwin County. The county's probate
judge in charge of elections had taken it upon himself to check
the tabulation machinery in the dead of night, long after poll
watchers and most of his staff had gone home, and concluded that
Siegelman had accidentally been awarded seven thousand votes too
many -- enough to tip the entire race to his Republican challenger,
Bob Riley. County officials were distinctly vague about the cause
of the supposed error, furnishing no details other than a passing
reference to a lightning strike.
Of course, it may have been just a coincidence
that the judge was a Republican, just as it may have been unimpeachable
legal precedent that led Alabama's attorney general, also a Republican,
to refuse authorization for a recount or any independent inspection
of the ballots. A subsequent analysis of the voting figures by
James Gundlach, a sociologist at Auburn University, showed all
sorts of wild deviation from the statistical norms established
by this and previous elections. Gundlach observed: "There
is simply no way that electronic vote counting can produce two
sets of results without someone using computer programs in ways
that were not intended. In other words, the fact that two sets
of results were reported is sufficient evidence in and of itself
that the vote tabulation process was compromised."
If America's electoral system is more
corrupted than any of its Western counterparts, many of the reasons
are to be found in the workings of the county elections office.
The United States has never successfully produced a professional
class of technocrats, and the field of election management has,
by common consent, been treated too often as a dumping ground
for dimwits, time-servers, crooks, and small-time political appointees
who are too incompetent to be given anything else to do. The worst
of them get fired, forced into early retirement, or prosecuted
on fraud charges.
The administrators in turn rely on the
services of dozens, sometimes hundreds or even thousands, of shoddily
paid temporary workers and volunteers, who may come forward for
all the right reasons but are thrown into the job with inadequate
training and little or no supervision. In the 1930s the chief
clerk of a big-city elections office complained to the author
of a government report: "It would be difficult to imagine
a more incompetent and drunken lot of loafers anywhere than the
nondescript outfit that was put on registration and election work,
with a few exceptions." Things have scarcely improved since,
not least because of the disdain heaped on the very concept of
public office since the Reagan era and the repeated budget cuts
that have been endured as a consequence.
In December 2000 as the Bush-Gore battle
in Florida was reaching its endgame, the Los Angeles Times interviewed
a former county election director from rural Washington State
who quit to become a waitress at Sizzler, where the money was
better. Lousy pay also explains why it is so hard to find and
keep competent voting machine technicians. "You make more
money servicing laundry machines," New York City election
commissioner Douglas Kellner complained.
Election theft through the ages
There is no one way to steal an election
in the United States. With the infrastructure of democracy split
into fifty states and more than four thousand counties, the permutations
for mischief are almost endless. What works in one jurisdiction
with one kind of electoral machinery can easily run into a procedural
brick wall in the next. Still, the historical record shows that
precinct bosses and party machines have tended to learn from each
other, borrowing the most successful techniques and then adding
new ones of their own.
In the nineteenth century, loopholes involving
registration lists were exploited from the very outset, as voters
known as "floaters" would hop across to the next ward,
the next county, or even the next state to cast extra ballots.
Paying for votes was standard practice across the country, as
was the lavish distribution of free liquor on election day. In
New York, Boss Tweed's Tammany braves perfected the art of repeat
voting, visiting the same precincts in the same wards in a variety
of disguises and changes of clothes. Tweed also perfected a way
to fast-track the naturalization process to generate tens of thousands
of new immigrant votes, an idea he originally filched from his
archrival, Fernando Wood.
In Pittsburgh, a city memorably described
by Lincoln Steffens as "hell with the lid off" physically
and "hell with the lid on" politically, boss Chris Magee
took the time to travel to New York to study the Tammany model
and take the lessons home with him. In Philadelphia, the Gas Ring
also copied New York and learned to pad out the voter rolls with
the names of fictional characters, children, household pets, and
In the South after the Civil War, the
former Confederate states followed one another's lead as they
pioneered ways to exclude black voters and illiterate whites from
the polls. In the North and Midwest, bosses in Chicago, Philadelphia,
and Kansas City figured out that the best response to the secret
ballot was to stop corrupting individual voters and start corrupting
precinct election officials and neighborhood canvassing boards
instead. Tight ward-by-ward control of the city was key to this
operation and frequently the object of ferocious partisan battles
in and of itself.
When lever machines came in, political
control of voting became all the more crucial. Governor Earl Long
of Louisiana once boasted that with the right election commissioners
he could get the machines to sing "Home Sweet Home."
(He also said that when he died, he wanted to be buried in Louisiana
so he could remain active in politics.)
The age of computer voting machines has
brought its own innovations and peculiarities, most notably the
greasing of palms in contract negotiations in certain states,
which has led to the criminal prosecution of several machine company
executives and election officials, often at the same time. The
fact that vote tampering can now be conducted secretly and invisibly
through software manipulation is also a perfect cover for the
would-be crook. If we can't document with certainty the cases
where this may have occurred already, it is precisely because
digital ballots, without a paper backup, can be handled in any
number of ways without leaving fingerprints. Everything is in
place for the perfect electoral crime, which is of course the
dirty politician's favorite kind. This avenue, one senses, has
hardly begun to fulfill its potential.
One important thing to understand about
vote theft is that it is not merely a question of personal morality.
It is not something that divides the world into bad politicians,
who do it habitually, and good politicians, who take scrupulous
care to avoid it at all costs. It is first and foremost a matter
of opportunity, and that in turn depends on the broader political
context. If a race is particularly close, or if the stakes are
regarded as particularly high, then the temptation to play to
the very limit of the rules, if not beyond, will become compelling.
If a political machine boss or party leader believes he can control
a certain number of votes, then he will do everything to get out
that vote, and never mind the exact nature of the "control"
that needs exerting. If each side has reason to suspect that the
other will resort to cheating, then thievery will invariably be
justified as self-defense against the dastardly tactics of the
other side. Often, mere accusations of vote fraud can be political
weapons that are every bit as ruthless as vote fraud itself.
There are no dirty elections without dirty
politics, and indeed as long as the politics are not clean, it
is almost impossible to prevent the electoral process from becoming
tainted. After all, rules work only if they are enforced. America
is a country that thrives on ferocious competition -- the sink-or-swim
ethic of capitalist adventurism, forever flirting with the fringes
of the permissible -- and few competitive arenas are more cutthroat
than elective politics. To believe that smooth elections are merely
a question of updated machinery and proper procedure, as many
election officials and mainstream media outlets appear to have
done since 2000, is to slip deep into denial and self-delusion.
The system functions not on the principle of the common good,
but on how much its participants think they can get away with.
There is nothing virginally pure about American democracy, and
there never has been.
Why do such dirty politics exist? In contrast
to many corrupted parts of the world, where democracy has been
threatened or subverted by an excess of ideology, the answer,
curiously, may be that the two major parties have not been ideological
enough. Both Republicans and Democrats have represented such a
grab bag of constituencies and interests over the course of their
history that it has often been difficult to say what exactly each
of them stands for. The GOP, in addition to its reputation as
the advocate of big business and conservative social values, has
at various times been the party of the antislavery movement, the
reformist impulses of the Progressive Era, and the environmentalism
of both Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. The Democrats, for
their part, spent much of their history as an utterly improbable
coalition of white Southern racists, Northern industrialists,
and immigrant workers. Such oddities could take root and persist
only because of the devolved nature of American politics, and
because executive power happened to be vested in the presidency,
not a British-style parliamentary system.
The disparate factions in each party have
not generally had to try too hard to find common ground and work
for a common program; often, coexistence has been enough. Such
radical devolution of party organization has not been without
its benefits, particularly in the diversity of political cultures
spanning the country, but it has also given rise to a strikingly
grasping attitude when it comes to competing for public office.
Because the parties have only a fuzzy set of ideas to defend --
the conservatives are not necessarily the fiscal conservatives,
nor the liberals necessarily the big spenders -- their supporters
rally around them much like sports fans around a favorite team.
Democrats call themselves Democrats and Republicans call themselves
Republicans as a matter of personal identity more than ideology.
What the party is, or claims to be, is often more important than
what the party actually does.
Partisanship, in other words, is the primary
organizing principle at election time. And that makes winning
everything -- not just the goal, but an end in itself.
Defending the candidate, not the program,
is what it has always been about. Indeed, the notion of a European-style
slate of candidates, chosen according to the overall vote tallies
of each party, seems almost laughable in the American context.
The clash of personalities is not only given primacy over the
clash of ideas; in these days of politics infected by the cult
of celebrity, personality is often the only thing under consideration.
Playing dirty becomes not only understandable; it is virtually
Call it the American Idol model of election
practice. The audience -- which is to say the voters -- are told
that the choice is all theirs, but really the key decisions on
form and content have already been made, the contest is skewed
in advance by the television producers for maximum entertainment
value, and the only meaningful criterion left is to determine
which candidate projects the greater charisma and the more pleasing
character traits. The whole system reeks of deception from top
The poster boy of dirty politics
Few historical figures attest to the abiding
ferocity of electoral competition better than Lyndon Johnson,
one of the pioneers of modern American politics who radically
altered both parties' ideas on campaigning and the wielding of
elective office. He always played the system ruthlessly to his
own advantage -- which is another way of saying he could be as
brazen, skillful, and meticulous an election thief as anyone when
circumstances warranted. Few politicians, in fact, have adhered
as closely to Charles de Gaulle's maxim to be petty in the pursuit
of power but magnanimous in the exercise of it. Johnson never
pretended to be a nice guy, or even a particularly honest one,
appealing to the very worst in the electorate when it served his
purposes to do so. At the same time, he racked up some genuinely
impressive achievements in the course of his career: landmark
civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act; the
creation of Medicare; the food stamp program; and the beginnings
of a vision to address the growing social and economic inequalities
of American society. Had it not been for the calamity of Vietnam,
he might have gone down as one of the great presidents of his
century. As it was, Johnson shredded America's international reputation
and self-confidence, was responsible for hundreds of thousands
of needless deaths in Southeast Asia, and torpedoed his own career
while it was at its height.
Some have sought to draw a moral equivalence
between his failings as a leader and the manner in which he conducted
his political battles. According to his biographer Robert Caro:
"His morality was the morality of the ballot box, in which
nothing matters but victory and any maneuver that leads to victory
is justified, a morality that was amorality." But it is also
important to see Johnson as a creature of his times and of the
Texas system from which he emerged.
Curiously, while his vision of a government-driven
Great Society has gone radically out of fashion, his lying, stealing,
cheating approach to the elemental battleground of American politics
-- his singular ability to craft an expedient and effective political
identity for himself while crushing his opponents without pity
or twinge of conscience -- has become his most striking legacy.
Johnson cheated in the first race he ever
ran, for senior class representative on the student council of
Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos. He and his
campus buddies, known as the White Star Gang, went systematically
from class to class pretending to be enrolled where they had no
right to be, made sure one of their own was named temporary chairman,
and recorded the class vote as an aye for Johnson regardless of
the actual outcome.
Johnson's defeat in the Senate race of
1941 had a lot to do with his determination not to be caught on
the losing side again when he made his second run for the Senate
seven years later. So, too, did the fact that his career was now
at an uncomfortable crossroads. To qualify for the 1948 Senate
campaign, Johnson had to agree not to run for reelection to his
House seat, which meant he was rolling the dice on his entire
political future. His problem was that he was running against
a popular conservative governor, Coke Stevenson, who finished
seventy thousand votes ahead of him in the first round of the
Democratic primary -- Democratic primaries being the only elections
that counted in the one-party, segregationist South.
For the runoff, Johnson knew he would
have to sweat out every last vote. Money was no object, thanks
to the patronage of the construction and military contractor company
Brown and Root (these days a subsidiary of Halliburton, and still
very much in the political game). Johnson commissioned numerous
opinion polls, a political tool then in its infancy, which persuaded
him the only way to win was to run to Stevenson's right. He blasted
the radio airwaves with advertisements to ram home his message,
another relative novelty. He also took to campaigning by helicopter,
creating a frenzy of excitement in every rural town where he landed
his "Johnson City Windmill."
None of this was enough, however, for
him to overtake Stevenson in the first round. So he had to resort
to more devious strategies. He orchestrated a succession of negative
stories about his opponent that were so incendiary that Stevenson
felt it beneath him even to respond. Stevenson was pilloried as
a Communist sympathizer and a union shill, both outrageous claims,
and was pilloried all over again as Johnson seized on Stevenson's
silence to accuse him of quivering before uncomfortable home truths.
Johnson held meetings with the political
kingpins in San Antonio and lavished them with inducements, including
fat rolls of dollar bills to cover poll worker "expenses,"
to woo their support away from Stevenson, who had taken the city
by a two-to-one margin in the first round. When all was said and
done, turnout in Duval County was an utterly implausible 99.6
percent, and Johnson won there with a similarly preposterous 99
percent of the vote.
First, though, the two sides spent several
days engaged in a nerve-racking game of Texas Hold 'Em, in which
neither candidate dared announce more than a handful of results
from his strongholds for fear of what might get stacked up against
him once the numbers were on the table. On election night, Stevenson
was ahead by 854. The following night, Johnson made up almost
all the difference, thanks to late-breaking returns from Houston
and one precinct in Duval County. Four days after the election,
though, Stevenson was up again by a seemingly insurmountable 362.
After six days, with nothing obvious left
to count, Stevenson was still leading by 113. Johnson needed a
miracle, and he got one, courtesy of an enforcer by the name of
Luis Salas in Jim Wells County, one county over from Duval. At
the Thirteenth Precinct in Alice, the Jim Wells county seat, Salas
artfully had a 7 in one of the vote totals changed into a 9 by
the addition of a simple loop, giving Johnson an extra 200 votes
and with them the election.
The Stevenson campaign exploded in indignation,
refusing to believe for an instant the figures could be genuine.
(Several decades later, with Johnson in his grave, Salas came
clean and confirmed that the late returns from Box 13 were entirely
fraudulent.) Stevenson himself traveled down to Alice in the company
of Frank Hamer, a legendary Texas Ranger who had set up the ambush
that killed Bonnie and Clyde. Together they examined the electoral
register and noticed that the last two hundred names appeared
in strict alphabetical order and were written in a different color
of ink from the rest. The two men were not permitted to copy the
list, but they memorized as many names as they could and then
set about tracking down the individuals in question, many of whom
said they had not been to the polls at all.
Soon, Johnson faced a dangerous new problem.
Having stolen the election, he now had to fight to get away with
it. His greatest fear was that the race would be thrown into the
courts, and from there subjected to a full-blown criminal investigation.
To avoid that, he had to persuade both the Texas Democratic Party
and the secretary of state's office to sign off on the results
as submitted. Seven members of the state certification board were
too afraid to show up to their own meeting, much less offer an
opinion on the validity of the result, but Herman Brown of Brown
and Root sent his private plane to pick up three of them at their
homes and made sure they put their seal on Johnson's eighty-seven
vote margin of victory.
The party, which held ultimate responsibility
for its own primaries, was a tougher nut to crack, with many members
of the state executive committee arguing in favor of a court contest
to resolve the controversy one way or the other. At the decisive
meeting, the committee first voted 29-28 for Johnson, then, after
one member had a change of heart, reverted to a 28-28 split, enough
to allow the legal contest to proceed. Johnson's aides, with their
backs right up against the wall, hunted the building high and
low for any committee stragglers and eventually found one, a certain
Charley Gibson, hiding in the toilets. Gibson's reluctant vote
sealed Johnson's victory and with it perhaps the most outrageous
single act of vote fraud in American history.
More than half a century later, it is
difficult not to see some reflection of Johnson's take-no-prisoners
attitude in the political style of his fellow Texan George W.
Bush, and especially in the maneuverings of Bush's canny campaign
strategist, Karl Rove. Despite their different party affiliations
and the very different eras that spawned them, Johnson and Bush
tapped into much the same well of Southern populism. Just as Johnson
allied himself with Brown and Root, Bush also looked to a major
Texas corporation, Enron, to bankroll his early campaigns in exchange
for political favors later on.
The corporate money served both men well
in their bids to vanquish opponents with more immediate and obvious
popular appeal, enabling them to wage lavish media campaigns even
as they resorted to more underhand campaign tactics. The outrageous
distortions that Bush and Rove used against Ann Richards in the
1994 Texas governor's race and against John McCain in the 2000
Republican primary were not all that different from the unstinting
smear campaign Johnson waged against Coke Stevenson in 1948.
Johnson is certainly not George W.'s only
role model. The Bush political style also bears strong traces
of Jacksonian nationalism, as well as the front-porch corporate
hucksterism of William McKinley's Rovian campaign manager, Mark
Hanna. Something of Johnson's electoral ruthlessness was unmistakably
at play, though, during the 2000 presidential recount, as the
Republicans seized the initiative at the first possible opportunity
and quickly sought to shut down all challenges. Rove has to be
the first politician or consultant since Johnson to demonstrate
a comparable appetite for victory at any cost. Rove's friend and
mentor Lee Atwater certainly stooped to some low campaign tricks
of his own, especially during George Bush Senior's trouncing of
Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. But Atwater
never had a Florida -- or, for that matter, an unprovoked and
calamitous Middle Eastern war to sell to the American public.
Rove, like Johnson, learned to play rough
very early in his career, almost ripping the heart out of the
College Republican movement as he concocted a bogus slate of alternate
delegates to get himself elected chairman in 1973. The experience
left him with no sense of remorse, only euphoria. Even in the
thick of the Watergate scandal, Rove had been teaching the dark
arts of political espionage and negative campaigning to College
Republican weekend seminars, his message being not that dirty
tricks were wrong, but that it was important not to get caught.
When Rove's adversary for the chairmanship,
Robert Edgeworth, leaked details of the seminars to the media
in a last-ditch attempt to wrest back the post he felt was rightfully
his, the head of the Republican National Committee (RNC) reacted
not with shock at Rove's behavior, but with fury at Edgeworth
for airing the party's dirty linen in public. The RNC head at
the time was none other than Poppy Bush, George the Father, who
not only endorsed Rove's fraudulent election but invited him into
the family inner circle as a trusted confidant, a position he
This Republican embrace of dirty electioneering,
and the dirty politics behind it, was to become a recurring feature
of the sustained rightward shift in American politics over the
next three decades. And as the conservative revolution progressed,
Rove and the Bushes were among its prime beneficiaries.
the Electoral Process