WASHINGTON -- Richard Nixon, who will go down in the history books for reasons other than his manner of campaigning, nevertheless will be remembered by students of politics as the master of sleaze by indirection.
That is not to say that he didn't sling mud directly at his Democratic foes throughout his long career, but his talent for sneaky sleaze was unsurpassed. He would often begin a negative comment about somebody by observing that "there are those who say" such-and-such about him or her, and then quickly add, "I do not say that." Then he would go on to apply another layer of mud, observing piously that "I mean that only in the best sense."
This fond memory of days past on the Nixon campaign trail is brought to mind now by an observation the other day of Mary Matalin, the political director of the Bush-Quayle campaign and a seasoned veteran of the political wars.
In defending the campaign's criticism of Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton, Matalin told a New York Times reporter that her campaign was not attacking Clinton personally but was questioning his integrity and honesty in dealing with personal issues raised against him in the primaries.
"The larger issue is that he's evasive and slick," the Times reported her as saying. "We've never said to the press that he's a philandering, pot-smoking draft dodger."
"The way you just did?" the reporter asked.
"The way I just did," she said. "But that's the first time I've done that. There's nothing nefarious or subliminal going on."
Dick Nixon would have been proud.
In keeping with the Democratic strategy of learning from Michael Dukakis' 1988 error in turning the other cheek to Bush campaign charges against him, party chairman Ron Brown hit back at once. He called Matalin's remarks "state-of-the-art sleaze" and insisted that she had to have been acting under orders from her candidate.
"Anyone who knows Mary Matalin knows she is a true political professional," Brown said, employing another time-honored device to pin blame on the preferred target. "She would never have used such a vicious smear unless she was instructed to do so."
Brown pointed out that President Bush in a press conference in April had told reporters that "I've made specific instructions in writing to our people to stay out of the sleaze business." He called on Bush to "tell us: Is this insubordination or obedience? Is his political director getting a public reprimand and a private pat on the back?"
Matalin, meanwhile, put out a press release in which she addressed Clinton as "you and your fellow Democratic sniveling hypocrites." The Clinton campaign immediately called on Bush to fire her. Matalin apologized, taking full responsibility, but Bush, while repudiating the remark, said he had "full confidence in her."
The swiftness with which Brown and the Clinton campaign jumped on Matalin's remarks underscored the view among Democratic strategists that not only is it imperative to come to Clinton's defense quickly, it is also smart politics to hammer at the Bush campaign as a pack of smear merchants.
Brown's assertion that Matalin must have been put up to it by Bush brushes aside the depth of frustration that exists at high levels in the Bush-Quayle campaign. The Bush insiders have a candidate who insists he will not really start fighting against Clinton until after this month's Republican National Convention, yet is increasingly doing so with little effect on the polls.
At the same time, the president is failing to articulate any strong sense of where he wants to take the country in a second term, and he is being peppered with suggestions from within his own (( party not only to dump Vice President Dan Quayle but even, from the far right, to step aside.
All this appears to be creating an atmosphere of tension in the Bush-Quayle operation not usually associated with Republican presidential campaigns of the recent past.
The Bush-Quayle HQ still has the button-down look of an insurance office but some tempers obviously are fraying as the heat is being turned up in the kitchen.