The press release from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was groundbreaking, if difficult to believe.
The chairman of the DCCC said his committee “will not fund any Democratic candidate who initiates attacks against their Republican opponents of an ‘intimate’ personal nature.”
In response, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s chairman made the same pledge and wrote that the agreement negotiated by the two committee heads “has the potential to truly change the tone and tenure of modern-day American politics for the better. We each agreed that there is no room in either of our parties for those who would make personal attacks on another candidate’s private life when those attacks have no bearing on a candidate’s fitness or ability to serve in office.”
If you think I just made up those quotes or the bipartisan agreement was the product of my imagination, you are very wrong. That agreement was forged almost 20 years ago, on Sept. 27, 1998, by Texas Democrat Martin Frost, who chaired the DCCC, and Georgia Republican John Linder, his counterpart at the NRCC.
But while Frost’s press release was limited to announcing the agreement, Linder used his letter to complain that President Bill Clinton’s allies were trying to discredit his critics: “As we have seen all too often, those whose views differ from the White House often become targets of vicious smears from ‘unnamed sources.’ In today’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz writes on the White House’s ‘history of attacking its accusers.’ Kurtz writes, ‘James Carville, the president’s friend, openly declared ‘war’ on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, and White House officials publicly released negative information about Kathleen Willey after the former White House volunteer accused Clinton of ‘groping her.’”
Linder was particularly upset about rumors being circulated that decades earlier, Illinois Rep. Henry J. Hyde, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, had had an extramarital affair.
He complained: “The personal smear campaign being waged against my friend Henry Hyde is a shameful attempt by a hateful few to besmirch one of the most distinguished men to ever honor our nation with his service. These attacks are nothing more than a slanderous bid to intimidate the man charged with overseeing possible impeachment hearings against President Bill Clinton.”
About a week earlier, on Sept. 18, The Washington Post had noted that a “leading Republican critic of Clinton, former U.S. attorney Joseph E. diGenova, said yesterday: ‘Their denials are worthless at this point. There is a presumption they are responsible at this point. They’ve made no bones that their tactic is to destroy anyone who disagrees with them. The burden has now shifted to them to disprove the fact that they were responsible for this.’”
(That’s the same diGenova who has defended President Donald Trump and almost joined the president’s legal defense team.)
While Trump’s affairs — and denials — are getting plenty of attention, most political campaigns have moved beyond issues of personal, “private” conduct.
Indeed, the focus on the current president’s behavior is less about his “private” behavior than it is about whether he lied, obstructed justice or benefited from the help of a foreign government.
Yes, Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy resigned his seat in the House after it was revealed that he had an affair and urged his mistress to get an abortion, and former judge Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy was sunk after revelations about his past personal behavior.
But Moore won a Republican primary even as rumors swirled about bad behavior years earlier, and GOP Reps. Blake Farenthold of Texas and Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee have survived personal scandals.
Personal scandals aren’t what they once were in American politics, though the recent attention to inappropriate sexual behavior has to some extent redefined what behavior is disqualifying for an officeholder or political hopeful and what is not.
I wouldn’t expect to see today’s campaign committees again swearing off future attacks, and it should be clear to all that the 1998 Frost-Linder agreement did not, as the Georgia Republican hoped, “change the tone and tenure of modern-day American politics for the better.”
Challengers and underdogs must still use multiple lines of attack to have any chance of winning, and White House spokesmen and leakers still try to discredit their opponents and silence their critics.
If anything, the nastiness has increased, even as attacks on a candidate’s private life — “when those attacks have no bearing on a candidate’s fitness or ability to serve in office” — seem to have become less important to voters.
The ideological division between the two parties has grown, and new platforms have made it easier for bizarre accusations based on baseless conspiracy theories to enter the political debate and to circulate very publicly — rather than through whispering campaigns of many decades ago.
The result is that the current political environment — and certainly the current White House — has taken us further away from civility, thoughtfulness, and the tenor and tone that Frost and Linder said they hoped to achieve. And that is a great pity.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 3, 2018.