Donald Trump, Lee Atwater and the Politics of Personal Attack

Watching the second Presidential debate was a very depressing experience. Trump’s campaign for the entire election season has been a mean spirited affair based on personal attacks with little policy specifics. He said John McCain wasn’t a war hero. He insulted Carly Fiorina’s looks. He labeled Jeb Bush “Low Energy Jeb”, Marco Rubio “Little Marco”, Ted Cruz “Lying Ted”. He insulted Ted Cruz’s wife’s looks and accused Cruz’s father of being involved in assassinating John F. Kennedy. Now Trump is branding Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” and saying Clinton has hate in her heart and is the devil.

I think there are legitimate criticisms of Hillary. During the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders gave some legitimate criticisms of Hillary. Unlike Trump, though, Sanders mostly focused on policy differences and not personal attacks, and Sanders is well versed enough in government to give policy specifics to his own proposals. During last nights’ debate Hillary attacked Trump, but she also walked to the questioners and tried to give some policy specifics to answer the individual’s questions. I think Hillary studied the Republican debates closely, because she would criticize Trump but avoid getting caught up in the mud fights that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz got into with Trump.

I think Trump was more focused than the last debate in his attacks on Hillary, though Trump’s attacks were personal as compared to Bernie Sander’s policy criticisms.

I thought the best moment of the debate was the last question, when Clinton and Trump was asked to name a positive quality that they admire about the other person. After the debate there was a nice moment where Chelsea Clinton and Ivanka Trump greeted each other with a smile.

Here is a PBS Newshour youtube video of the second debate

After watching the last debate, I wanted to watch past presidential debates to compare. All past candidates had worked out detailed policy positions on a wide variety of issues. Even the major third-party candidates, like Ralph Nader in 2000, Ross Perot in 1992, and John Anderson in 1980, had worked out detailed policy proposals. In 1992, for instance, Perot bought half hour blocks of television time to explain his proposals.

You can clearly see just how mean-spirited Trump was in last Sunday’s debate when you watch Presidential debates from other years. Even the most heated debates of the past had more civility than last Sunday’s.

Here is a video of the 1960 Presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. I like the Kennedy Nixon debate because of its civility, and their focus on policy differences.

Here is the 1992 Presidential Town Hall debate between George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. There are some personal attacks in the debate, but all 3 candidates offer policy proposals with some detail. The candidates rarely interrupted each other in the way Trump did, and they talked directly to the individuals asking the questions. There was some complaints about negative campaigning from the audience, but the 1992 debate was still a lot more civil than last Sunday’s debate.

Here is the 1980 Presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter and Reagan offered contrasting political philosophies and detailed policy proposals. They had deep political differences, but they did not call each other devils or say that they had a heart full of hate. They kept their focus on policy differences.

Before this year, I always thought the most mean-spirited Presidential campaign was the 1988 campaign. That was because George Bush’s campaign manager Lee Atwater used racist ads to attack Michael Dukakis and used the Pledge of Allegiance to attack Dukakis’ patriotism. Years later, both Bush and Atwater regretted the way they ran that campaign. Lee Atwater apologized to Michael Dukakis and Atwater renounced the Southern strategy where the Republican Party used coded racist appeals to try to attract the white voters of the deep South.

In a January 13, 1991 New York Times article:

In a detailed and candid article about his career and his fight against an inoperable brain tumor, Lee Atwater has apologized to Michael S. Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” of a remark he made about the Democratic Presidential nominee in the 1988 campaign…

…As manager of Mr. Bush’s campaign, Mr. Atwater succeeded in making the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer, an issue against Mr. Dukakis.

Mr. Horton, who is black, raped a white woman and stabbed her husband while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The Bush campaign used the case to portray Mr. Dukakis, then Governor of Massachusetts, as a liberal who was soft on crime.

“In 1988,” Mr. Atwater said, “fighting Dukakis, I said that I would strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his running mate.’ I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not”…

…Since being stricken last year, the 39-year-old Mr. Atwater has apologized on several occasions for many of the campaign tactics he once employed and for which he was criticized…

…”While I didn’t invent negative politics,” he said, “I am one of its most ardent practitioners.”

Stefan Forbes produced a documentary titled “Boogie Man: the Lee Atwater Story” that describes how Lee Atwater introduced the personal attack politics that Donald Trump is employing to such devastating effect to both his Republican opponents and to Hillary Clinton. In the PBS website, it writes:

In the documentary “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story”, producer Stefan Forbes reveals new information about the meteoric rise and tragic demise of a man both admired and reviled for the controversial, sometimes racially-charged political tactics that helped elect George H.W. Bush president and inspired protégés such as Karl Rove…

…Boogie Man recounts how fellow South Carolinian Sen. Strom Thurmond took an interest in Atwater, tutoring him in the use of highly emotional wedge issues such as abortion and crime that would help Republicans win over disaffected working class voters to a largely pro-business agenda. Says Atwater intimate Tucker Eskew, “Resentment became the future of the Republican Party.” In the documentary, viewers hear from numerous journalists and politicians who say Atwater’s use of scurrilous rumors, push polls and other dirty tricks propelled him onto the national scene…

…Boogie Man takes viewers behind the scenes of the contentious 1988 campaign, remembered for the infamous “Willie Horton” ad, which portrayed Mass. Gov. Michael Dukakis as soft on crime and easy on rapists and murderers…

…After Atwater was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1990, some of his closest friends say that, terrified he was going to hell, he embarked on a desperate search for redemption. “Lee really was confronting some very troubling facts,” says Eskew, “that in winning he had hurt people. Fear had been part of his toolkit. That fear came back on him.”

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About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Since my time in college, my goal has been to be a successful children’s book illustrator. I’ve illustrated 3 books: Two Moms the Zark and Me by Johnny Valentine in 1993; Night Travelers by Sue Hill in 1994; and Cherubic Children’s New Classic Story Book Volume 2 for Cherubic Press in 1998. I’ve painted murals for Lester Shields Elementary School in San Jose, the Berryessa branch of the San Jose Public Library, and Grace Community Church in Los Altos. I’ve had a few illustrations published in South Bay Accent Magazine and I will have an illustration published in the January/February issue of Tikkun magazine.
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