Aim for `better angels'

September 30, 2004|By J. Joseph Curran Jr.

AFTER SERVING in the Air Force and in public service for nearly five decades, I have learned a few things about how people in politics use what is best in human nature to promote a sense of unity and purpose among their constituents and their countrymen.

Unfortunately, I also have seen how people in politics use the worst elements of human nature not to better their country -- or even themselves -- but to hurt, or even destroy, others. We are seeing far too much of this in American politics these days, and this may be worth noting as the candidates for president embark tonight on the first of their three debates.

In my experience, this degrading form of political advocacy -- often executed through smear or whisper campaigns -- is used mainly because the threatened persons, or party, are unable or unwilling to articulate ideas, arguments or principles that appeal to what Lincoln so poetically called "the better angels of our nature." Sad to say, Republicans and Democrats alike have been guilty of this behavior.

I remember my frustration when my successful 1991 prostate treatment led to a campaign by political opponents in my own party who told people "off the record" that I was too ill to run for office. Until then, I had thought the low point of my political life had been when political operatives manipulated fears of integration to such a level that my home was picketed in 1967 because I supported an open housing law that allowed blacks to buy homes in the same neighborhood as whites. In hindsight, these picketers at least were willing to express themselves in public, unlike cowardly smear artists who whispered lies in the shadows.

Sadly, the manipulation of these "lesser angels" in our nature is easy to orchestrate because it rarely requires facts or fingerprints -- only a whiff of innuendo or a sensational piece of gossip from a person or group who appears to be knowledgeable. It is almost never true but smacks of the truth because the source seems and sounds so credible. With the Internet, it is quite easy to create a veneer of credibility and spread untruths rapidly.

This issue was on my mind as I watched the unfolding controversy involving CBS and fabricated documents used to try to discredit President Bush's Air National Guard service and the criticism of Sen. John Kerry's military service by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, none of whom served on the boat he commanded. These are the latest examples of a growing propensity in American politics for smear campaigns.

Other recent, notorious examples:

The outrageous, anonymous and well-orchestrated allegations in the 2000 South Carolina Republican presidential primary that Sen. John McCain of Arizona had fathered a black child out of wedlock when, in fact, he and his wife had adopted a baby from Bangladesh.

The political ad aired during former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland's unsuccessful 2002 re-election campaign. It displayed pictures of Mr. Cleland (a triple amputee Vietnam veteran) and Osama bin Laden while an ominous voice spoke of the 11 times he had voted against legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security. (He voted against because it did not provide Civil Service protection for department employees.)

So far, Mr. Bush, the most powerful man on the planet, has opted to profess that he commends Mr. Kerry's service in Vietnam and that he wishes the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth would stop running ads that smear his opponent, but that there is nothing he can do about their exercising free speech. I have a hard time believing that, just as I have a hard time believing that some key Democrats can't do anything about their supporters who, in zealous pursuit of a president they dislike, feel that any means justifies that end.

Lies have a life of their own, so it's not easy to erase a smear. Too often, the mud is tossed late in a campaign, and only after the election is the destruction apparent. But there is an antidote. Often, there are people in a position of authority who could slow down or stop these tactics and denounce their use, early and publicly. That can send a strong message to misguided supporters who think they are helping.

Those who seek to serve as our elected leaders should speak to the issues we face day in and day out with solutions they propose. Those who spread rumors or gossip to the "lesser angels" of our nature should be soundly rejected, their motives scorned.

The contest to succeed in public service is, or should be, an honorable pursuit. Let us not spoil the image of the office and the character of those who seek that office. It would be a great relief to us all if the participants, the advocates and the supporters always played fair, always were truthful and always were positive in appealing to the "better angels" of our countrymen's nature.

J. Joseph Curran Jr. is Maryland's attorney general.

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