Et tu, June Allyson? This was not a vintage year in politics, by anyone's definition, but still I was unprepared to see the star who was the object of my teen-age fantasies join the judge-bashing forces in California.
But the Los Angeles Times says my favorite actress has made a radio spot urging defeat of three California Supreme Court justices, up for confirmation vote on Tuesday, because "they cut the teeth right out of the death penalty" and took other politically unpopular stands.
This kind of assault on sitting judges is more obnoxious than most political attacks, because the judges are in such a poor position to defend themselves, unless they want to doff their robes and get down in the muck with their critics. Recognizing this, Anthony Murray, the president of the state bar of California, organized an unprecedented effort among the lawyers to defend the principle of judicial independence.
In assailing the "self-appointed vigilantes" of the courtrooms, "the lawyers who attack judges as being 'soft on crime' because they want to be judges themselves," and "the unscrupulous politicians who think there is something in it for them if they get in line to kick the courts," Murray showed that there could be a certain rhetorical excess among the judiciary's defenders as well.
In doing so, he provided one more bit of evidence that 1982 is going to be recorded as the year when the uninhibited attack on one's opponent became the norm of political discourse.
Naive as ever, I did not see it coming. The heavy-handed assaults on the character of Ted Kennedy had done their work for Jimmy Carter in the presidential primaries of 1980. But when the Carter forces tried to turn Ronald Reagan into a bogeyman, it backfired badly. So I thought perhaps politicians might avoid such tactics.
The first campaign of the year encouraged that belief. Reps. Edward J. Derwinski and George M. O'Brien, both Illinois Republicans, had been thrown together by redistricting. Their nomination battle in the March primary was a fair fight, with each man talking about his service in the House and to his constituency. Old friends, they agreed not to blacken each other's reputation, and they kept their agreement.
It turned out that kind of campaign was to be the exception -- not the rule. The new rule, as applied if not stated by the campaign consultants and media advisers, is to get in a good shot at your opponent before he or she gets in one on you.
Thus, when I returned to Illinois six months after the O'Brien-Derwinski primary, it was no surprise to find Adlai Stevenson and Jim Thompson, perhaps the two best-qualified candidates for governor in modern times, standing at the podium in Peoria and calling each other liars.
Nobody who grew up in the Chicago area wants politics to be pantywaist. But the shrill, unrelieved assault on the integrity, convictions and actions of the opponent demeans the process of government and magnifies the cynicism about politics.
It is easier to decry than to change. Tactically, the negative campaign makes sense. Most incumbents start out far in front, boosted by their office's publicity machine, and with an advantage in fund-raising. Challengers' strategists can prove that the most efficient way to bring that incumbent within striking range is to "raise his negatives" early in the campaign.
In response, incumbent campaigns decide in many cases on the strategy of the preemptive strike: raise doubts early about the challenger's reputation, record and views, so people discount anything they hear from him.
You can see where this leads -- to the kind of negative campaigning that has flourished this year. But it also leads to gutless government, where the art of survival means avoiding any controversial stands that an opponent could use in a future "attack" ad.
That kind of cop-out cripples government's capacity to deal with the hard choices on taxes and spending that times like these require. And that kind of campaign cripples a healthy democracy.
In many states this year, the negative advertising efforts of outside groups like the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) received such heavy and adverse publicity in the local press that they backfired. The same thing was true of some -- but not nearly enough -- of the candidate-inspired negative campaigns. It is going to take more vigilance by the press to force the politicians to clean up their act.
We have to get back to the point that campaigns serve to establish governments, not just to slander politicians.