Highline—American Electoral: 7 Days on the Trail

(reported and written with Jack Hitt)

Day 4:  Is South Carolina Really the Nastiest Primary?

KEVIN BAKER: Sick and exhausted from our sojourn in New Hampshire and the death-defying drive that followed, we pried Jack’s frozen fingers from the steering wheel and hopped the Silver Meteor for Charleston, South Carolina.

Ah, Amtrak! America’s rolling showcase for technological regression. We sped along at a pace just over half as fast as a passenger train in 1930. We had our dinner not in Carolina, but parked in Washington’s Union Station, where the engine was switched from electric to diesel. They had to cut that lights for that, so we ate in full darkness until the porter handed us a glow stick to aid us in aiming our forks.

Our porter merely chortled when we asked her if the wi-fi worked, so we had her pull out the bunk beds in our compartment and tried to sleep. The problem with that was that the toilets up and down our train car, which also doubled as showers, made a startling cannon fire sound whenever they were deployed. Shouting ‘Fire in the hole!’ at every flush never got old. Down in the lower bunk, Jack snored like a drunken Hessian with a lung wound.

JACK HITT: It was not easy to sleep given that Kevin mouth-breathed like a Varangian guardsman recently tossed from a high bluff. When I struggled to untangle my wafer-thin, blue Amtrak blanket, sparks of static flew like summer fireflies. If a fire had broken out, no one in that compartment was getting out alive.

We spent the rest of the night cowering in terror, until—in a stirring tribute to the approximate time the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter by the Confederate army—we pulled into Charleston station hours before dawn and marched off into what we had been told was a hotbed of political vice.

The Charleston Post and Courier has set up a “Whisper Campaign” hotline in an attempt to nip dirty tactics in the bud.

KB: “South Carolina on the Republican side is a viper’s nest,” a former Obama campaign worker informed Politico yesterday. The same article called the primary maybe “the seamiest underbelly of American politics” and warned its readers to expect a “coming blizzard of dirty tricks.”

ABC News claimed “the Palmetto State is notorious for its history of mudslinging, whisper campaigns and vicious rumors,” while The Washington Post described South Carolina as the “home to whisper campaigns, dirty politics, back-alley knife fighters” that are “all anonymous fliers and unlisted numbers.” “The dirty tricks of South Carolina are well known,” NBC correspondent Katy Tur told us.

This consensus is so pervasive it has even been internalized by many locals. The Charleston Post and Courier, here in this lovely city, has set up a “Whisper Campaign” hotline that concerned citizens can call, in an attempt to try to nip these dirty tactics in the bud.

South Carolina, home to the dirtiest politics in all the land? Really? Dirtier than, say, Whitey Bulger’s Massachusetts? Or Buddy Cianci’s Rhode Island? Dirtier than New Jersey, with Chris Christie’s Bridge of Punishment? Or my own New York, where the heads of both houses of the state legislature, Democratic and Republican, were recently packed off to prison on massive corruption charges?

Dirtier than Chicago? LOUISIANA???

JH: Growing up here, the reputation we all gloried in was not that we were sleazy and backstabbing, as the coagulating media opinion has it, but that we were sly and tough.

Our revolutionary hero was Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, whose most famous gambit was to taunt redcoats into chasing him into the local cypress forests, where they would become lost in a malarial quagmire infested with gators—with no knowledge of how to get out. The story you always heard about Sullivan’s Island is that the colonials lured the British into crossing the breach inlet knowing that the notoriously treacherous currents would drag them under and suck them into the ocean. The account is almost certainly not true, but that didn’t stop our mothers from telling us that when we were young swimmers.

South Carolina’s modern reputation as a haven of dirty tricks, though, is not really a South Carolina problem. It dates to a particular moment, the now legendary whisper campaign of 2000 that was perpetrated by outsiders. John McCain was running against George Bush and had the momentum, after trouncing Bush in New Hampshire by winning half the vote to Bush’s third. South Carolina would have to be the place to blunt the Straight Talk Express.

Bush 41 had nice legs.

Flyers began to appear around the state mysteriously alleging that McCain had turned traitor in Vietnam, or was crazy. One Columbia shop owner, Mark Carmon, remembers leaving a campaign debate, and when he and his wife “got back to our car, there was a flyer under the windshield wiper saying something about McCain having a Negro child.” McCain and his wife Cindy had adopted their then nine-year-old daughter Bridget from a Bangladeshi orphanage, but by the time this bare fact had been properly amplified in the racist backwaters of the upstate, the question was, had McCain fathered an illegitimate black child?

The twin maestros of this modern dark art were Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. In 1980, when Atwater was only 29 years old, he was handling the congressional campaign of South Carolina Republican Floyd Spence. He falsely put it out that Spence’s Democratic opponent, Tom Turnipseed, was a member of the NAACP. Like many members of the media, Atwater also knew that Turnipseed had long ago suffered from teenage depression and had undergone a round of electroshock therapy.

At a press briefing, he arranged to have a fake reporter ask about Turnipseed’s “psychotic treatment.” Atwater responded that you had to be careful listening to Turnipseed, adding, “In college I understand he got hooked up to jumper cables.” The press pool guffawed, and Floyd Spence was re-elected handily.

KB: Atwater’s campaign against Turnipseed so impressed George H.W. Bush that he hired him to run his presidential bid against Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988. The result was the sleaziest presidential campaign of our time. Many people remember Atwater’s race-baiting “Willie Horton ad.”

Infinitely dirtier was Atwater coordinating a wholly false smear that claimed Dukakis suffered from mental illness. I vividly remember Atwater flunky Mary Matalin smirking winsomely into a camera and sneering on camera, “Real men don’t get on the couch!”

I can also recall overhearing a couple of young women in New York on the eve of the election, talking about how they couldn’t vote for Dukakis because he was “for bestiality.” It turns out that Atwater and his merry band of pranksters had picked up on a routine bill the Massachusetts state legislature had passed—and that Dukakis had signed—which erased various archaic laws, including one against man-animal love.

But still worse was how Atwater and company spread another completely false story—that Dukakis’s wife, Kitty, had burned an American flag. Who the hell ever goes after the other guy’s wife?

The Bushes do, that’s who.

But, really, what isn’t?

Two years later, as a newly converted Catholic dying of a brain tumor, Atwater apologized to Dukakis for “the naked cruelty” of the campaign. But George H.W. Bush never apologized. And for the 2000 election, his son picked Atwater’s doppelganger in character assassination, Karl Rove to run his campaign. “South Carolina’s” assault on John McCain followed apace. Once again, W. had outdone his daddy.

JH: It’s no secret that the Bushes have long considered politics to be a dirty business—and therefore, one in which anything goes.

But now here is poor old John Ellis Bush, supposedly the smart one, up against the wall in South Carolina. Some have gloated that Jeb is really Fredo after all, not W. But it’s clear to me that Jebbie’s real problem is that he lacks a wartime consigliere while facing what must seem like the manifestation of all his family’s nastiest smear jobs come back to haunt him.

Trump slaps him at one debate after another with just the sort of inane and unfair accusations that generations of Bush hirelings used to knife much better men. Trump is, moreover, the consummate Bush nightmare: someone who simply can’t be slimed, fairly or unfairly. In the ultimate irony, Jeb has hit him again and again only with what is completely true: Trump has supported many Democratic causes and candidates over the years, he has filed for bankruptcy four times, he has no experience in government, he is not a practicing Christian or a good family man, he has been divorced twice, is vulgar and bullying and willfully insults Hispanics, women and many others.

A tragedy in three parts.
Somehow, none of this matters now. Here we are in South Carolina, and the Bush family has run out of dirty tricks. Which means they’ve run out of nearly everything. Nothing could be finer.