October 16, 2003
Bob Beckel, Veteran Democrat Political Consultant, Campaign Manager and News Analyst
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
"These guys make Nixonís crowd look like a bunch of kids shoplifting candy at the local grocery store. They have taken the art of character assassination to the point where it is their number-one tool."
"Iím not bitter. The hatred I engender on the Right is my proudest achievement." So boasts Bob Beckel.
Some BuzzFlash readers may recall Beckel as Walter Mondale's 1984 campaign manager, some may recall him as a regular on Crossfire (paired up with Lynne Cheney, perish the thought), others may recall him as a guest host for Larry King Live.
Beckel, however, prefers to think of himself as a long-time Democratic battler against the anti-democracy forces of the right.
Recently, he started bobbeckel.com as a website aimed at exposing the right wing, through investigations and opposition research.
True to form, the right wing has virulently attacked Beckel for some personal problems. Of course, these are the same kind of indiscretions that the GOP demands forgiveness and sympathy for when they are committed by their own members. Between Schwarzenegger's groping, Rush's junky coming out party, and Pat Robertson's stated desire to nuclear bomb the State Department, you think the Republicans would back off a little. But, do cockroaches have shame? Enough said.
We thought that Bob could provide a perspective, given his nearly 35-year involvement in politics, on how the Republicans have degraded political discourse and brought it down into the gutter. Bob, as you will see, didn't disappoint us.
* * *
BUZZFLASH: You were the campaign manager for Walter Mondale in 1984. Politics has changed a great deal in the almost 20 years since you ran a presidential campaign. How has the climate changed in terms of the Republicans and the Democrats?
BECKEL: Itís gotten much more partisan and negative. Itís gotten much more dependent on money, particularly special interest money. Soft money has been used by certain groups to literally destroy the reputations of good progressive politicians.
When I started in politics in 1972, I would venture to say that 95 percent of our ads were positive and 5 percent were negative. Well, you can turn that right around now. Also, the art of negative campaigning Ė- and I donít mean just in terms of media, but in terms of the wide use of advanced communication technologically used by the Right to attack the Left.
The Right uses telephones, mail and the Internet to do its dirty work. Itís difficult to trace, although thatís what Iíve been in the business of doing. If there is any advantage of having been around so many years, itís having been up against these guys before. We know who they are, what they do, and how they do it. And thatís really the whole purpose of bobbeckel.com.
Weíre not in the business of reporting news really, except to use whateverís in the news to do an editorial response. What weíre really about is dealing with the Right Wing. Weíre not a website thatís about policy or reporting, there are already many good political sites like BuzzFlash to find out whatís happening in politics. Weíre an investigative group who intend to monitor the Rightís tactics and expose them before they come after liberal candidates or organizations. The difference is that weíre going to tell the truth, and they usually donít.
BUZZFLASH: The extreme negativity probably started in the í88 presidential election cycle with the Willie Horton ads, and when Lee Atwater came of age we saw it emerge very virulently with Newt Gingrichís ascension to the House leadership. Then, of course, we witnessed the impeachment battles. One characteristic of Republicans that we frequently point out on BuzzFlash is that they demonize personality. They jump over the issues and they try to attack the character or personality of an individual. Certainly we saw that through the impeachment process, and they used it recently against Tom Daschle -- before the Iraq war, they ran ads with him and Saddam Hussein on the same page. They really go for the broad smear and character assassination. And that certainly wasnít always as common. I mean, Nixon had his dirty tricks people, but it wasnít as open and aggressive and in your face as it is now.
BECKEL: These guys make Nixonís crowd look like a bunch of kids shoplifting candy at the local grocery store. They have taken the art of character assassination to the point where it is their number-one tool. Think about it -- if you can assassinate the character of the person speaking, then what he or she says doesnít really matter, ergo, the issues that they talk about are coming from somebody who has been turned into a monster by the Right.
Limbaugh has made this into a fine art. I was the first person to put Limbaugh on television, back in í89 when I had a show for Fox. And I always admired his quick wit and his intellect, but he has gotten increasingly more into the business of character assassination. For example, he referred to John Kerry as "the presumed Vietnam war hero." "Presumed" was the word he used. I mean, thatís all you need to know. Thatís the most ridiculous, absurd statement. Hereís a guy who won a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts, and "presumed" is a word that, given the low end of the bell curve that most of Rushís audience is, probably went right by them. But Rush does that.
The Right has built the modern Republican Party in the South on race and demonizing blacks. Attaching blacks to Democrats and all thatís wrong with government has been the key to their success, especially in the South. And they have gotten away with it by being subtle and having very few people from our side in their face.
Weíre in the business of exposing their tactics, some of which Iíve had used against me before -- like mailing official government-looking stationery to blacks in precincts in the South, telling them if they vote in the wrong place, theyíll get a $5,000 fine and a year in jail. It obviously drove down black turnout. Thatís one that Jesse Helmsí thugs used against Harvey Gant in NC. One of the missions of bobbeckel.com is to expose these tactics with examples, and also what a campaign should do if something like this happens to them. The problem for campaigns dealing with these guys is the press tends to call it a political fight and not newsworthy.
We do not take money from campaigns, weíre not a PAC, bobbeckel.com is the reporting site for our investigative business. Weíre investigating the Right on many fronts. We hope to expose them before they do their dirty work. If necessary weíll go after them in court.
BUZZFLASH: When you say "go after them in court," in regards to Ė
BECKEL: There is no doubt that many of the Rightís tactics are illegal. The problem has been the lack of resources on the Left to expose them. Bush is the first catalyst to unite the Left in a long, long time, and, as a result, getting help is easier this year. Weíve got lawyers, including former U.S. attorneys, and investigators, for example, who volunteer their time. That story we broke in South Carolina on the telephone banks Ė- I donít know if you remember when Bushís people used those telephone banks against John McCain in the South Carolina primary in 2000, accusing him of having a black child and other despicable things. Thatís one of their tactics. Their use of automatic dialing of untraceable hate messages, phony front groups and other tactics has been elevated to an art form. We understand that, and we also know that itís illegal in most places. So the second that they step forward and try to put something out, weíll take them to court.
BUZZFLASH: Are you talking about in the upcoming election?
BECKEL: Yes. We wanted to start now because the upcoming elections are so important. There were lots of places on the Internet where you could go and find information on Bush and get a good policy debate, or a good progressive slant. BuzzFlash is a good example of that, and I think thatís terrific.
Iím not sure thereís that much more room out there for a new website to do that. What I wanted was a site to report information on the Rightís activities and to promote an organization of people across the country -Ė and weíre in the process of identifying at least one bobbeckel.com coordinator in each state, who would help us investigate specific activities being planned by the right in the 2004 campaign cycle. Our people are experienced politicians who understand the Right very well in their home state.
We have compiled the names of many right-wing groups and their leadership. We also intend to out Bush officials and Republican members of the House and Senate who are allies of these groups -- in some cases controlling their activities. Starting in late November we will begin to post this information, by State, on bobbeckel.com.
Weíre doing some other things. Weíre going to take Bush contributors over a thousand dollars, and where we can find that theyíre delinquent in their taxes, particularly at the state and property tax level, we will publish that. And if we can get information from the IRS via a Freedom of Information Act request, weíll see if theyíre delinquent in federal taxes, although that is unlikely. Weíre doing the same thing with the state and local police departments, to see if theyíve ever had a felony arrest. By the way, this tactic has been used by the Right for years.
This is something that I donít particularly enjoy doing. Some people will say itís because Iíve been attacked for so many years by the right wing, and that Iím trying to get even.
But thatís not important. I have watched too many good people go through character assassinations who are now reluctant to stay in politics or enter politics. These guys have gotten away with this long enough. As I said in our mission statement, itís not going to be pretty. And anybody who wants to join us, accept that. But the time has come. And the only way I know how to do it is to use my own experience, my knowledge of them, and expose them to the light of day, which they hate.
BUZZFLASH: Aside from the website, youíre talking about lawsuits. Is Larry Klayman your model on the right to emulate on the left?
BECKEL: (Laughter) No. Heís just one of the strangest but toughest human beings Iíve ever run across. I think that Larry trying to expose Cheney is appropriate if the powers that be arenít going to do it. And the powers that be are in the hands of the Right Wing. Theyíre not going to look into these guys because itís all going to come back to them.
With Cheney, how much more do we need to know? You know that this was a massive payoff. The pollution stuff that Bush did recently, lifting the anti-pollution requirements on these old, dirty, stinking, energy and chemical companies -- all thatís a payoff. The Democrats on the Hill, for some reason, donít speak up. I think itís because they were intimidated by Bush in Iraq, and he was so popular after 9/11 that they didnít really want to try to take him on. They would look very political at a time of war, and the rest of it. Well, that time is over.
I donít have any doubt that Bush used his recent appearance at the FBI Academy to announce Patriot Act II so he could have the cover on 9/11. How sick is that? Knowing full well that the thing would come out in the paper Ė- we want to do more on terrorism Ė- on the day of 9/11? If thatís not a Karl Rove plan, I donít know what is. But the cynical press corps didnít pay any attention to it. Thatís why bobbeckel.com has the White House Press Passes section -- where the press gives the White House a pass.
It seems to me that if the institutions that youíve come to depend on, whether they are Congress or the press, fail to do their job or expose what is undoubtedly a vast Right Wing takeover of the Government, then for those of us who understand them, whoíve been up against them, and whoíve been victims of them Ė itís our responsibility to carry it forward. And if it means having to do it the way they do it, we will. Weíre not afraid of them.
Itís like Richard Mellon Scaife. The reason Iím after that SOB is heís trying now, after trying to destroy the Clintonís, to clean up his image. This guy has been funding dirt projects which are then carried out by people like those involved with the Arkansas Project, a bunch of thugs and crooks. Then Scaife turns his back and says: I donít know what theyíre doing. How much longer are we going to put up with that? We canít.
BUZZFLASH: Well, do you think the Democrats are too forgiving? For instance, after Bill Clinton was elected, that was just after George Bush the elder pardoned all the Iran Contra figures, some of them who have been reborn in the administration of Bush the junior. Bill Clinton took an attitude of "letís get it behind us" and decided not to pursue it any further. And the whole Iran Contra issue was just dropped. Democrats seem to be enormously forgiving, whereas Republicans wonít forgive you for a hangnail. Theyíll appoint a special prosecutor instead. They focus on the most minor thing, whereas with Bush, thereís so much deception and so much lying that itís hard to get your hands around it.
BECKEL: I think the Democrats have traditionally, despite all the stories about hardball politics in Chicago, and Tammany Hall, and all that history, Democrats have been a progressive party more interested in policy than politics. Bill Clinton was one in a line of progressive presidents. And if you look at the progressive presidents whoíve been in power, whether it was Roosevelt, Kennedy, Carter -- who I worked for in the White House -- and Clinton, who sought important policy changes, which by definition, upset the status quo. They change policy. And for the right wing, thatís a dangerous thing. They donít want any change. Theyíre doing just fine.
And the Democrats, being caught up in progressive politics, which I applaud on the one hand, have, on the other, become wimps when it comes to opening up their eyes and realizing whatís going on in campaign politics. They want to believe that we have this ability as Democrats to be forgiving, as youíve put it, and somehow that will make the Right change their ways.
Bobbeckel.com is not going after Republicans. Many Republicans are very decent people, people who are very good friends of mine. Weíre after the Right, which regrettably is now the face of the GOP. Around Washington, everybody sort of wants to get along with each other. Bush was the one who called for a new spirit of bipartisanship in Washington. The Democrats bought it, while the Republican Right never had any intention of even trying.
And the worst among worst now is in virtual control of the Right, and thatís Tom DeLay, who I think is the single most dangerous man along with John Ashcroft in America. Weíre going after DeLay. We have people looking into his various money organizations. DeLay is about as forgiving as a cornered rattlesnake, and this boy needs to be cut down to size. The Democrats for some reason are intimidated by DeLay. They let him get away with too much. You know how long that story lasted on DeLay when he let that guy write that piece of legislation for a contribution? Hell, it went away in a day or a day and a half. If that had been Clinton -Ė theyíd have kept it going for weeks.
BUZZFLASH: It was when some lobbyists were seeking legislation that was favorable to them, and basically DeLay shook them down and said pay to play.
BECKEL: Thatís right. There was an e-mail. Remember they found the e-mail from the company lobbyist that said it would cost the company a $25,000 contribution to one of Delayís money fronts to sit at the table. And then they jump on Clinton for the Lincoln bedroom? I mean, itís one thing to be in a bedroom; the cost of that is changing sheets. But when you start making legislation favoring companies who contribute to DeLay and then give them huge tax breaks, thatís hundreds of millions of dollars.
The press in this town has gotten so intimidated themselves, or lazy, or theyíve gotten this sort of false sense that Bush really likes them. And they have not been aggressive at all. The problem is that weíre facing a make-or-break election here. If there ever was an election that was critical to keep at least even, itís this one. The stakes are so high. And I know what the right wingís going to do. Whatever it takes. Like the South Carolina phone project we discussed.
BUZZFLASH: In the primaries in 2000, the Rove character assassination operation claimed McCain wasnít really a hero because, since he was a prisoner, there was nothing else he could do. And also that he broke and repented to the North Vietnamese. And hereís Bush, who was AWOL, his campaign is spreading rumors about McCain who suffered years of physical abuse and served his country well. And they did that in the Republican primaries. Are you saying theyíre going to do this to kind of gum up the Democratic primary?
BECKEL: Oh, sure. Theyíve got so much money, theyíre going to mess with the Democratic primary because whoever emerges from the Democratic primaries and caucus system they want as battered and bloody and character-assassinated as possible.
And theyíre going to spend the entire primary season doing that. They have the ear of the most important of all newspapers in this country, which are small dailies or weeklies that generally editorialize from the right. People read those things all the time. The Democrats pay little attention.
The right is also very good at manipulating the voting process. And that wasnít just Florida. People were so shocked about what happened in Florida, but for years Iíve watched these guys in areas with Republican county and state control manipulate the voting process so that the poorest communities deliberately got the worst voting machines. And they were given a smaller amount of money on percentage than white communities to staff them. What happened in Florida got to be a big deal because it was a presidential race, and the entire world was watching, but what happened in Florida has been MO of the Republican right for years. A big part of that is suppressing black turnout.
When you start sending mailings to people saying that youíre going to have a $5,000 fine, of course youíre going to keep down voter turnout. But before those mailings go out, one of our jobs is going to be to find out about it and either expose it or take them to court and try to stop it. One of the things we want to do is have progressive campaigns contact us with information they might have about what the right is doing. They canít take them on directly because it looks oftentimes like sour grapes, or they canít prove it. Weíll take it from there, and weíll do the exposing.
One advantage of 32 years in politics is knowing people everywhere. Iíve got a guy working right now, a retired lawyer, who is going to track down where George Bush was during those months he said he was with the Air Force Reserves. This is all being done by contributions, and a chunk of that out of my own pocket. The cost of going to court and doing all this is not cheap. So Iím going to go after some fairly large contributors. Since I donít have to report anything, theyíll be protected. And the names of the people who are working with us will be protected, obviously.
I see places like yours that are willing to take these a**holes on and write stories and do editorials about them that none of the mainstream press will do. And Iím proud of you for doing it. But thatís not my forte. Mine is to try to expose these guys. Thatís what I want to use the website for, to expose them. Weíre only a few weeks old, and weíre already getting a pretty heavy response.
BUZZFLASH: You were on television, and youíve been a commentator, a pundit and so forth. Itís clear that putting right wing/left wing aside, corporate ownership in the media -- Roger Ailes, Fox News, Murdoch -- is so significant in how it shapes the minds of most Americans. Although politics has always been in large part image over substance, it seems itís accelerated exponentially under the Bush administration with regard to how he puts an image out there. No matter how opposite his actions are, the image is what sticks. Itís starting to shift a little bit now, but itís not clear if that will change. Do you have any thoughts on Roveís use of television, and how the Republicans shape image over substance?
BECKEL: First of all, an awful lot of the cable networks, particularly Fox and CNBC, have got a vested interest in Bush doing well. They are where Bush is on policy, especially tax cuts. Secondly, Bush has been given such an enormous and unique pass because of 9/11. Letís remember this guy was barely at 50 percent on Sept. 10, 2001. Most news outlets are very reluctant to attack a president in the middle of something like this, particularly if you accept Ė- and I have some doubts -Ė that he did a reasonably good job initially.
Finally, peopleís attention spans are so short now. Ironically it was the Wall Street Journal, years ago, which figured out that businessmen were so busy they wanted to read all the top stories right in a column on the front page. Well, itís the same sort of thing now with news on television. Itís also because itís moved more toward the sensational and has gotten much less substantive than it was because they canít draw audiences. Now youíve got more people watching cable than the networks. Thatís the first time thatís happened ever. So thatís all part of it.
BUZZFLASH: Thanks for your time, Bob.
BECKEL: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
* * *
Learn more about Bob Beckel's work at BobBeckel.com.
otherwise noted, all original