News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, July 16, 2018

The legacy of malice

Shortly before I moved to South Dakota, my next door neighbor, who taught law enforcement at a community college, ran for county sheriff.  He was running against a man who was active in politics and was a bit of a character.  The opponent was serving as county coroner and he put emergency lights on top of his car and went buzzing around town as if he was always on his way to an emergency.  It was a joke around town because you don't need lights and sirens for trips to the morgue.  However, aside from such idiosyncrasies,  he had a reputation for being a very nice and energetic man and he was well known throughout the county.

I was a registered Republican at the time,  but not at all active in politics and I never voted straight ticket.  My next door neighbor was running as a Republican and the woman who was serving as party precinct chair lived just down the street and stopped to chat up the party candidates when we met on the street.

My neighbor launched a campaign that had a very negative element, as his ads and statements ridiculed his opponent in an insulting, mean-spirited way.  Most people, including the woman who was precinct chair, thought the negative campaigning was sure to lose the election.  The majority of people reacted strongly to negative, personal insults in campaigns and the conventional wisdom of most was that it reflected low character on the person  who used it and turned people against them.

My neighbor won the election, much to the surprise of most people.  Many political strategists in both parties noted that negative campaigning, particularly of the personally insulting kind, had never worked before and backfired on those who tried to use it, but it seemed to have worked in this instance.  Did it mean that the public had changed?  That negative campaigning would be effectively used?  Apparently so.  That time marked a shift away from campaigns that centered on what candidates would do to campaigns that engaged in personal attacks against opponents.  Since that election, I've seen negative campaigning grow to the point  to where it is considered a necessary aspect of a successful campaign.  Advocates of personal defamation as part of the political process say that it works.  Election results indicate they are right.

The South Dakota GOP finds defamatory campaigning so effective that it has become the major "strategy" in its campaigns.  Defaming and misrepresenting opponents dominates.  On the national level, Trump has turned insult, abuse, and mendacity into a national agenda.  However, if South Dakota can claim national leadership in any area of human endeavor, it is in negative campaigning.  The Daschle-Thune campaign provides the paradigm for using malice as the predominant motive in a campaign.  

The Daschle campaign and the Brown County Democrats ran their campaigns out of a large storefront on downtown Main Street.  The Daschle campaign manager set up a back office he called the "war room."  In it, he posted all the ads and statements that the Thune campaign issued against Daschle.  One newspaper ad pictured Daschle with Osama bin Laden and Iraq's Saddam Hussein with the implication they were all somehow allied.  Another claimed that Daschle abandoned his first wife for a beauty queen.  And there were blog printouts and news accounts of what Thune said at his public appearances.  One of Thune's hired character assassins wrote a book about the campaign which, of course, never admits that the fundamental; strategy of Thune's campaign was to create malice against Daschle and anyone or anything  associated with him.  After the election, a political scientist and some journalists suggested that the campaign materials should be reviewed to analyze how the press was manipulated and responded to the negative materials of the campaign.  Some funds were generated to organize what was titled The Press Project, which was conceived largely as a fact-checking enterprise.    The materials collected in the Aberdeen campaign office provided a substantial start for the review.  A professor of writing and journalism and dean of a program who was on a pre-retirement sabbatical from an eastern university was engaged to set up and direct the project in its initial stages.  Professor John had visited the Dakotas with a close professional colleague originally from South Dakota and for many years they had neighboring summer homes near Detroit Lakes, where he was working on a sabbatical project and where he was directing the startup on The Press Project.  At the very beginning right after New Years in 2005, the friend who had introduced him to the Dakotas died of cancer.  Professor John kept working on the project which had been moved to Fargo for his convenience, but he indicated that he would be able to spend less time in starting up the project than he originally intended.  Initially, The Press Project intended to focus on only the traditional media.  Blogs were very recent and surveys showed that extremely few people were aware of them, let alone read them.  The professor decided that blogs had to be included because they most clearly defined the tenor of the Thune campaign.

He arranged for a young political scientist to work into the directorship of the Project, and turned his attention to his own project and preparing to return to his job for a year before retiring.  Another Project worker was a young woman who was an early contributor to the Northern Valley Beacon.  She reported that the professor had become very dispirited as he analyzed the materials.  After he turned over the project to the political scientist, he commented how demoralizing dealing with the campaign materials was for him.  He said that the misrepresentations and defamations could be fact-checked, but the malice behind them was the dominating factor in the campaign.  They were made with no regard for the collateral damage it did to people.  He commented that what needed close study was the audience that accepted such campaign tactics.

The Press Project came to a halt when the young political scientist quit to join a more prestigious project, stating that what happened in South Dakota was a provincial anomaly of little importance to the rest of America.  (The Trump phenomenon proved him wrong.) So, we packed up the materials in  archive boxes and put them in a storage unit with the expectation that the work would resume.  As time passed The Project receded into the background of political business, and I have lost track of where the materials are.

One of the things that the professor found alarming was that in a state whose media have a notorious "conservative" slant, the Thune campaign contended that it, particularly the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, showed a personal partiality for Tom Daschle.  The evidence showed that for the most part Thune was, in fact, receiving idolizing treatment from the media, treating him like a "rock star."  In an account by the Aberdeen American News, that term was actually used. 

The late David Kranz was a particular target of the Thune campaign.  I had met him in his professional capacity, but we were remote acquaintances.  He was considered by other journalists and political operatives to have the most extensive, insightful knowledge of South Dakota politics of anyone in the state.  Professor John said that the attacks on Kranz were "malicious contortions" of his work which the Project should expose in detail.  The professor left some analysis of the attacks, but they were never followed up.  Professor John was an expert in writing and rhetoric, but his successor was a political scientist and placed more emphasis on the social effects of the campaign rather than analyzing its truthfulness and defamatory constructs.  The professor noted that the fundamental premise of Thune's campaign was character defamation against Daschle, which included assailing the character of anyone associated with Daschle in a positive way.  Thune's record in Congress was one of fecklessness and indolence in comparison with Daschle's.  Rather than risk comparisons, the Thune campaign carpet-bombed Daschle's character, including that of anyone around him.

Through my associates, I kept hearing that David Kranz was deeply troubled and hurt by the attacks on him, insisting that most of what was said was not true.  And  I heard that he was struggling with health issues.

Professor John said that the Thune campaign left South Dakota with a legacy of malice which will be recorded in the many lives it affected.  Kranz's long-time colleague Kevin Woster brought that legacy up in his lengthy tribute on the occasion of Kranz's death.  He referred to the memorial given at the funeral by former Argus Leader editor Randall Beck, whose tenure at the newspaper included the 2004 campaign cycle.   Beck spoke of "the 'false, malicious attacks on his character' from which, Beck rightly said, Kranz never quite recovered."

Woster writes, "Most of us would have returned fire against such an onslaught. Kranz did not. Could not.  'It was not in him to fight back,' Beck said."

The legacy of malice has not yet been presented in a comprehensive account of the Daschle-Thune campaign.  But it keeps cropping up in the lives of those who were hurt by it.  Much to the discredit of the voters in South Dakota, it works.  And the election of Donald Trump is an indication of depravity in the national population.  Good will is not part of the GOP agenda.

The family and friends who were collateral casualties of the character assassination blitz against Tom Daschle are the evidence of that legacy of malice.  It is one thing to cite negative things when they are true about a candidate.  But contriving falsehoods solely for the purpose of defaming a person in the eyes of the public is decadence that kills off the better angels.  Such tactics leave a trail of distrusting and damaged people.  And that is our legacy of malice.

1 comment:

Porter Lansing said...

A Russian propogandist (probably involved in the current subterfuge) noted recently, "There's a large group of Americans that will believe any lie you tell them, as long as they agree with it."

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States