Continuing the pattern of playing dirty politics

December 12, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. now counts on everyone living in the state of Maryland forgetting there is a battered man named Max Cleland. Ehrlich hires Bo Harmon, whose actions were a national disgrace, to run his re-election campaign for governor. In the most infamous campaign Harmon ran, he confronted the war hero Cleland, who gave up three of his limbs in Vietnam and became a U.S. senator from Georgia, and he lumped Cleland with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden so he could win an election.

This tells us all we need to know about Harmon, and even more than we suspected about Ehrlich, who welcomes him as a kindred political spirit. We already knew Ehrlich gave us the Prince of Darkness, Joe Steffen, and we already knew Ehrlich's attacks on hate radio, and we already knew the history of dirty tricks secretly orchestrated against Ehrlich opponents in a series of political campaigns.

But we didn't suspect the smiling governor of Maryland would bring in the likes of Harmon, who gave new meaning to the term "gutter politics" when he went after Cleland, the triple amputee whose courage formed one of the most inspirational stories of his generation.

FOR THE RECORD - A column by Michael Olesker in the Dec. 12 editions on political consultant Bo Harmon failed to include attribution for a short passage on former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland.
The passage -- "On one of his first trips out, an old girlfriend pushed his wheelchair around Washington. Near the White House, the wheelchair hit a curb. Cleland pitched forward and fell out, flopping around in dirt and cigarette butts in a gutter" -- should have been credited to a 2003 article in the Washington Post.
Mr. Olesker took notes from that 2003 article and other sources in preparation for an April 2004 interview with Mr. Cleland and a column he wrote at the time. Twenty months later, when Mr. Olesker was preparing to write the Dec. 12 column on Mr. Harmon, he returned to that notebook and confused the research notes with notes from the interview.
The Sun regrets the error.

About whom, the Ehrlich people are now hoping, Marylanders will declare: Max Who? The Ehrlich people are hoping that citizens who talk so reverently about America's noble fighting men and women will fail to make the specific connection with Cleland, whose service counted for nothing when it got in the way of political gain.

When you go after a guy like Max Cleland's patriotism the way this Bo Harmon did, then you go after anybody.

Cleland's the guy who lost his limbs, and nearly his life, when a grenade went off at his feet 37 years ago in Vietnam. A haunted, ghostly figure, he spent excruciating months recuperating at Walter Reed Army Hospital. On one of his first trips out, an old girlfriend pushed his wheelchair around Washington. Near the White House, the wheelchair hit a curb. Cleland pitched forward and fell out, flopping around in dirt and cigarette butts in a gutter.

It took Harmon to put him back in the gutter, three years ago.

Under President Jimmy Carter, Cleland became head of the U.S. Veterans Administration. Then, elected U.S. senator from Georgia, Cleland was a moderate-to-conservative Democrat who supported George W. Bush's 2001 tax cuts and backed the resolution authorizing Bush to defend America militarily after the Sept. 11 attacks - a gesture for which Cleland later said he felt "duped" by an administration selling "a lemon."

When Cleland ran for re-election three years ago, against Rep. Saxby Chambliss - a man who avoided serving in Vietnam - President Bush (whose post-Sept. 11 popularity was riding high) visited Georgia six times to support Chambliss.

With Bo Harmon running the campaign, Chambliss ran TV ads showing pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein - and Cleland. A narrator said that while America faced terrorists, Cleland opposed Bush's homeland security efforts.

Among those who attacked the ads were three U.S. senators who were Vietnam vets: Democrat John Kerry, who called the campaign "the most craven moment I've ever seen in American politics"; Republican John McCain, who called it "worse than disgraceful"; and Republican Chuck Hagel, who termed it "beyond offensive."

So this is the political architect, this Harmon, whom the governor of Maryland now brings to his own re-election campaign. Harmon is scheduled to begin work today. Georgia GOP Executive Director Paul Bennecke says that bringing up the Cleland business now is "sour apples."

But that minimizes a pattern that we've seen for the last three years of the Ehrlich administration, and all those political campaigns where opponents such as Republican Thomas W. Chamberlain, and Democrats such as Gerry L. Brewster and Connie Galiazzo DeJuliis and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, all complained bitterly of campaign dirty tricks.

It becomes part of a pattern in which this governor accuses House Speaker Michael E. Busch of "playing the race card" - because he disagreed with him about slot machines. Part of a pattern in which state workers claim they lost their jobs because of political affiliations and a special legislative committee now opens hearings to discover the extent of it. A pattern in which this governor sends talking points bashing his opponents to public information officers across state government.

And it's part of a pattern in which Ehrlich's Prince of Darkness, Joe Steffen, spreads rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley's personal life and then, when caught, sends that famous e-mail message declaring, "A lot of the reason everybody knows [O'Malley's] history is because of what has gone on beneath the surface. ... A few folks put in a lot of effort to ensure the story got some real float." Which folks? What kind of efforts? Nobody in the Ehrlich camp has ever said. They insist Steffen was acting alone.

And then there was Steffen's remarkable e-mail to Kendel Ehrlich saying he would "not hesitate to throw myself on a grenade if that is what I think is needed - or is desired from above."

Oh, Harmon's going to love working for the Ehrlich campaign folks.

They're the type who feed off each other.

While the rest of us pick at the bare bones of a once-civil political process.

michael.olesker@baltsun.com

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