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When Negativism Gets Too Negative : Presidential campaign must rise to the occasion

August 28, 1992

It took President Bush's reelection campaign five days to decide that it had better distance itself from Newt Gingrich's repellent comments linking Woody Allen to the Democratic Party's platform. Five minutes should have been enough.

Gingrich, the House Republican whip and honorary co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Georgia, suggested last Saturday that Allen's highly publicized relationship with the adopted daughter of a former lover falls right in line with the Democratic platform. "Woody Allen having non-incest with a non-daughter to whom he was a non-father because they were a non-family fits the Democratic platform perfectly," Gingrich said.

What exactly is that supposed to mean? Gingrich's own long-after-the-fact clarification was that the Democrats do not sufficiently recognize the family as a social institution. \o7 Oh\f7 . In that case, one is left to wonder why the usually articulate Gingrich, as he introduced the President, didn't simply offer his opinion that "the Democrats do not sufficiently recognize the family as a social institution," and let it go at that. While highly arguable, the directness of that claim would at least have left no confusion about the message it meant to convey.

The truth, of course, is that Gingrich overreached himself by trying to tar the Democrats with a non-relevant scandal, and ended up taking a political pratfall. When it became clear that he had gone beyond even the highly elastic bounds of oratorical propriety common in presidential campaigns, and that his calculated negativism was producing its own negative political fallout, the White House acted to dissociate itself from what had been said. "In no way did he speak for the President," said Charles Black, a top adviser to the Bush campaign.

It just could be that the excessiveness of Gingrich's comment might finally shock both campaigns into a new awareness of the perils of relying on negativism. Nastiness, to be sure, began to intrude into presidential politics about one day after the revered George Washington retired, and modern communications probably encourage the temptation to engage in malicious exaggeration. Still, the mounting evidence is that voters have grown impatient with sleaziness and its vendors, finding innuendo and smears to be neither entertaining nor persuasive in a year when serious problems cry out to be discussed.

People want to hear the candidates' views on what really affects their lives: the deficit, the economy, health care and its costs, education, America's role in the world. These are the genuine issues. Cheap substitutes should no longer be accepted.

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