I think the ad-writers in the 1982 campaign have been brushing up on their Shakespeare.
Not since Marc Antony stood in the Forum and inflamed the Roman crowd to rebellion against Brutus by repeatedly -- and sarcastically -- labeling Julius Caesar's slayer "an honorable man" has there been such a spate of character assassination as there is this year.
Time was, in the innocent days gone by, when the first rule of campaigning was not to mention the opponent's name.
The theory was that when the voter was confronted with the tangle of names on the ballot or voting machine, he or she would hone in on the most familiar one, very much the same way the supermarket shopper picks out the heavily advertised brand name from the jumble of competing soaps or ketchups on the shelf. Thus, the same principle that gave us Heinz pickles gave us Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) and other wonderful products.
There were "magic names" in various states, like the many Browns of Ohio, or the Whites of Texas or the Caseys of Pennsylvania. They trafficked on the favorable images that others of that name had established years before. So popular were these names that it became vital for voters to know who was, for example, "the real Bob Casey," and who was the imposter cashing in on his popularity.
But the value of name familiarity in politics has been eroded. As campaign consultants have become more proficient in collecting money and using it to market candidates, it has become possible for "unknowns" to become "well-knowns" in the space of a few weeks.
The political advertising geniuses dwell in a specialized world of "rating points," where a certain quantity of money is converted into a certain amount of television ad time, with predictable effects in "moving the polls" a certain number of points. Sen. Bob Packwood, the chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that with the money and the talents his party commands, "you can get anyone to 90 percent name familiarity by Election Day."
On the face of it, that sounds like a giant step forward for democracy, enabling the unknown Walter Mittys of this world to compete with the inheritors of great -- or fortuitously famous -- names.
But like a great many other "improvements," this one turns out to have some unforeseen and unfortunate consequences.
Once campaign managers understand that the opponent is likely to be able to buy name familiarity, there is no point in ignoring the bloke. The new doctrine seems to be: get the opponent's name known first -- and unfavorably.
I saw some of this at work a few weeks ago in Packwood's home state of Oregon. Republican Gov. Vic Atiyeh, seeking re- election, was filling the airwaves with ads about the Democratic challenger, state Sen. Ted Kulongoski. Atiyeh is not a household name in many places, but he's a lot better known in Oregon, after four years in office, than Kulongoski. There are, it seems, fewer Kulongoskis in the forests of Oregon than in some wards of my home town of Chicago.
The message of the Atiyeh ads is that Kulongoski is "dangerous" to Oregon's health. The word is used over and over. Kulongoski has run for three different offices in the last three elections (including a loss to Packwood in 1980), the ads say. Kulongoski has sponsored legislation that would scare business away from Oregon, they say. You get a Kulongoski, and you got trouble.
Denny Miles, Atiyeh's campaign manager, explained that the ads made lavish use of Kulongoski's name because Atiyeh's polling found voters didn't know much about the man. Rather than wait for Kulongoski to arrive with favorable information about himself, the governor filled the vacuum with his own version of Kulongoski's record. And, all sides acknowledge, the ads have had an effect. When I first heard them, I thought the ads were unusual. But it turns out that similar tactics are being used -- mostly by incumbents -- in state after state this year.
Some would say the practice is as innocent as a pitcher reaching down for a handful of dirt to take the shine off a new baseball. But letters to the editor and calls to radio talk-shows indicate that some voters, at least, dislike the "negativism" of these campaigns.
I suspect that many officeholders despair of defending their own records in a time as troubled as ours, or of persuading a public cynical about all politicians that they are uniquely worthy of re-election on their merits.
So, they take the easy way out, and say, "Let me tell you about my opponent, the ho-ho-honorable man."