This election year was the blandest on record for campaign mudslinging, smears, distortions and general dirty tricks, says a group that monitors such complaints.
The Fair Campaign Practices Committee, a private, nonpartisan clearinghouse for candidates' allegations of dirty campaigning, reported that complaints in the 1976 campaigns reached a new low, both in number and in substance, since 1954 when the commitee began monitoring campaign.
Granted, there was Democrat Norma A. Bartle's charge that her Republican opponent in New York's 30th district congressional race, victorious incumbent Republican Robert C. McEwen, said she was "programmed" by her husband, and that a McEwen aide had called her by a vulgar epithet.
There was John Burcham's allegation that workers for his opponent, Democratic Rep. Gladys N. Spellman of Maryland 5th congressional district, had lied their way into one of his press conference and "violated the sanctity" of the home.
And New Jersey's Democratic Rep. Henry Helstoski, for the third campaign in a row (and the first he has lost), charged the GOP opponent with unfairly connecting him to organized crime.
But, compared with banner mudslinging years of 1954, 1960 and 1964, the 1976 general election was conspicuous for its lack of what H. L. Mencken called "bosh-mongering," or candidate appeals based on emotion rather than reason.
This year brought only 42 candidate complaints, compared with 57 during the 1974 election, and a big drop from the 1972 total of 84. Similarly, the types of complaints transformation, with personal attacks and allegations of corrupt practices, which 10 years ago comprised more than half of the filed complaints, dropping to an all-time low number.
In recent years, distortion and misrepresentation of voting records and stands on issues have become the most popular way of maligning one's political opponent. In 1976, nearly every charge filed with the Fair Campaign Practices Committee involved some sort of record twisting.
After all the charges and counter-charges are tallied, however, the question remains, who was right? Was the complaint valid? The Fair Campaign Practices Committee makes no attempt to answer that.
"We do not make judgments," said committee director Robert Sidman. So, while most complaints filed include demands that the committee investigate the charge and if possible, censure or at least point the finger of guilt, the committee does not do anything of the sort. Even if the group did, it has no power to punish or stop the culprit.
The committee notifies the accused of the complaint and asks for a response. The response is then turned over to the complainant who is then free to re-issue the complaint if he or she is not satisfied.
If either party remains dissatisfied after this back-and-forth process, he or she can request mediation by the American Arbitration Association, a request that was made only four times this year. In the majority of cases, however, the accused does not even respond to the initial complaint.
Sidman is the first to acknowledge that the committee, which is the only nongovernment national-level outlet for complaints against actions that fall short of violating federal campaign, frequently ends up being no more than public relations conduit for a candidate who wants to make headlines.
In fact, the committee's main premise, upon which its justification as an effective campaign monitor is based, is press participation. Most candidates, the committee points out, file a complaint and simultaneously give a copy of it to the media. The committee makes itself available to press questions, and opens its files, including complaints and responses, to the media. As committee brochures to candidates state, the complaint procedure gives the media "a news peg" on which to hang an unfair-tactics story.
According to the committee, its function is "not unlike that of certain professional organizations - like the bar association or the medical society. It is concerned with maintaining standards of ethical conduct."
It started in 1950, with a general election that was called one of the dirtiest in years.
Campaign excesses that year, centering on appeals to bigotry and flagrant character assassination, provoked the formation of two Senate subcommittees, headed by Sen. Paul H. Douglas of Illinois and Iowa Sen. Guy M. Gillette. Recognizing the difficult in legislating what amounted to a sort of public standard of morality in political campaigns, the committees recommended the establishment of a citizen's group, made up of "eminent members of both parties," that could adopt a fair campaign code and serve as a sounding board for complaints against those who allegedly violated it.
It took the 1952 general election, complete with pamphlets alleging "softness on communism" printed on pink paper, voting records used out of context and general appeals to a political witch-hunt mentality, however, to spur the suggested "eminent citizens" to action.
Led by Anna Lord Strauss, former president of the League of Women Voters, and later by Charles P. Taft, son of the late President, a group of prominent political and religious leaders went into business under the committee name.
Whether the committee, which has a staff of two in a tiny second-floor walk-up apartment near the Capitol, has had any significant effect on the moral and ethical conduct of political campaigns is unclear.
The committee maintains that it effectively serves as both "marriage counselor," in terms of getting the candidates to talk out a dispute, and "watchdog," in terms of providing a deterrent for mudslinging. For proof, its staff points rather proudly to alleged attempts by the Nixon White House to revoke the committee's tax exemption, and charges that the Nixon administration, in general, tried to harass it.
One thing the committee can definitely be credited with is the collection of what is unlikely the most complete compendium of smear literature in the country. It ranges all the way from a 1960 leaflet against "a fascist state - the Vatican," illustrated with a drawing of John F. Kennedy prostrate and kissing the ringed hand of the late Pope John to an undated pamphlet, entitled "A Parasite's Paradise," that warns: "If you want to be a big shot in America today, you must be a Jew, a Negro, an Alien or a Racketeer."
This year's contributions to the files pale by comparison.