By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 21, 2006
The October surprise: It's as much a seasonal sure thing in Washington as cherry blossoms and the National Christmas Tree.
When leaves fall and elections loom, the term gets tossed around more than a Manning family football. This October, too, is chockablock with shockers. Already "October surprise" has been applied to: several unflattering new books about the White House, an upwardly revised civilian casualty estimate from the Iraq war, the Mark Foley scandal . . . and October isn't over yet.
Originally the term meant some alakazam rabbit-from-a-hat trick that an incumbent party would unveil to keep its candidate in office. Over time the phrase has been bandied about and overused to the point that it now means any startling surprise from any direction that might somehow affect the outcome of an election.
October, says Michele Swers, a political scientist at Georgetown University, "is when the electorate begins to focus on the candidates and the issues, and voters begin to actually look at what you do and what you say."
A surprise works, she says, "if there's already a national mood building for a certain issue. The surprise can exacerbate the mood of the people. Anything that intensifies a national wave is helpful."
On his MSNBC show last week, former congressman Joe Scarborough pointed out three recent eye-openers, including "the latest October surprise from New York's publishing world." Excited, he cited "State of Denial" by Bob Woodward, which actually went on sale Sept. 30, and "Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell" by Karen DeYoung, published on Oct. 10. Both books, by Washington Post reporters, "provided a double-barrel blast at the White House," Scarborough said.
He continued, "But now another book drops within weeks of the midterm elections, claiming the Bush White House played Christians for fools and called them nuts and lunatics behind their backs."
He was talking about David Kuo's "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction." Published this week, the book questions the Bush administration's sincerity when it comes to support for faith-based initiatives and for the social issues important to evangelicals.
On CNBC, Jed Babbin, who was a defense undersecretary in the George H.W. Bush administration, referred to the Johns Hopkins University study of Iraqi civilian deaths -- published in the British medical journal the Lancet -- as "another October surprise. . . . It's not at all credible."
Babbin said the number of Iraqi dead has been used before as a pre-November jolt. "The last time they published this same report," he said of the Johns Hopkins survey, "the same group went out and did a similar analysis two years ago, and guess what? They put it out just before the 2004 election."
The longest-running eyebrow-raiser of this October -- the Mark Foley scandal -- got its start in the final days of September. Keith Olbermann, host of the MSNBC program "Countdown," referred to it as a pre-October surprise, but the story has drip-dripped through the month. "The Democrats prayed for an October surprise," wrote syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg, "and like manna from heaven, a hypocritical, sexually disturbed Florida Republican dropped into their laps."
Some Republican strategists suggested that Democrats waited to make a big deal about Foley's instant messages to generate an autumnal bombshell.
The earliest mention of "October surprise" in a Nexis database search of American newspapers is in The Washington Post in late August 1980. William R. Van Cleve, co-director of candidate Ronald Reagan's panel of military policy advisers, said that the notion of the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, pulling an "October surprise" somewhere in the world to influence the pending election "has been nagging at some of us for some period of time." The rumored surprise was an invasion of Iran, which was holding dozens of Americans captive.
In October 1992, the issue of Penthouse magazine with the Gennifer Flowers interview about her relationship with candidate Bill Clinton went on sale. In late September 1996, questions arose about campaign contributions from foreign sources to the reelection campaign of Clinton and Al Gore. On Nov. 2, 2000, just five days before the election, a Maine television station reported that candidate George W. Bush had been arrested in 1976 on a drunk-driving charge. "Call it the October surprise a few days late," a CBS reporter said at the time.
In some years the October surprise, like the Great Pumpkin or Godot, is much anticipated but never appears. But in recent years it's become so predictable, so commonplace, it should be called the October Same-Old Same-Old.
"Surprises, on schedule, are hardly surprises," Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report says in an interview. "The October surprise has become a tired ritual that needs reinvention."
There are variations. And trying to guess the next iteration -- sex scandal, international policy shift, military assault -- makes for a popular bar game. But in this era of muck-slinging politics with candidates "going negative" and "digging up dirt," a true October surprise would be an October without one.