Friday, July 29, 2016

Is it happening again?

Someone seems to be hacking the DNC and Clinton campaign to get information for partisan political advantage in order to help Donald Trump,  the Republican party candidate.

It has happened before. And, it may have made a difference in a close election. Let me take you back to 1980

On October 28, 1980, just one week prior to the presidential election, President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan met for their one and only presidential debate. The stakes could not have been higher for either side since they were essentially tied in the national and state polls. Gallup had the contest at 45 percent Carter, 42 percent Reagan.  NBC/Louis Harris had the race at 45 percent Reagan to 42 percent Carter.

In the electoral votes, Carter had a lead in New York and Reagan had a lead in California, although each camp was claiming that they were closing the gap with their opponent. Pennsylvania and Texas were too close to call.[1]

Bill Brock, the Republican national chairman was predicting that a strong showing by his candidate in the debate would lead to a landslide victory for Reagan in the Electoral College. It’s uncertain how confident Brock was about Reagan’s chances, but others in the Reagan camp weren’t too worried. They knew Reagan had an advantage going into the debate. His staff had found a way for him to cheat. Of course that wouldn’t be widely known or published in the press until three years later. 

In the opinion of media commentators and political pundits at the time, neither candidate really won the debate. Carter was able to attack Reagan for his “radical” stand on a number of policy issues such as what to do about Social Security. Reagan found the opportunity to get in some of his famous zingers such as “I sometimes think he’s like the witch doctor that gets mad when a good doctor comes along with a cure that works” and “There you go again.”[2] Assessing the outcome of the debate, Hedrick Smith of The New York Timeswrote:

The Presidential debate produced no knockout blow, no disastrous gaffe and no immediate, undisputed victor. It was a contest of content against style, or a President repeatedly on the attack to put his challenger on the defensive while Ronald Reagan used his calm demeanor to offset Jimmy Carter’s contention that he was dangerous.[3]

Of course, not making a disastrous gaffe and winning the style contest may have been enough for Reagan. A highly unscientific “instant” poll conducted by ABC News right after the debate found that Reagan had “won” the debate by a two to one margin.[4] More importantly, Reagan’s performance in the debate undoubtedly helped to remove any doubts voters had about his ability to handle the job of president. Reagan’s pollster credited the debate with strengthening “Reagan’s credibility for taking Carter on as sharply as he did in the last five days [of the campaign.]”[5] Reagan won 489 electoral votes to just 49 for Carter.

Fast forward three years. In the summer of 1983, a book on Reagan by Time correspondent Lawrence Barrett entitled Gambling with History: Ronald Reagan in the White House was published. Two paragraphs in the 511 page book set off a media frenzy and Congressional investigation. Barrett reported that prior to the 1980 Reagan/Carter debate someone in the Reagan camp had obtained, or perhaps stolen, a briefing book and other papers Carter was using to prepare for the debate. These books had been used to prepare Mr. Reagan for the debate and obviously had given him an unfair advantage. There were both legal questions (Were the papers and book stolen?) and ethical questions (Did the use of material violate the Ethics in Government Act or just good ethical behavior in general?).

The initial White House reaction to the media and Congressional inquiries was to downplay the whole matter.  Reagan said it was “much ado about nothing.” White House spokesperson, Larry Speakes said, “This is nothing new in politics; it’s the way politics works.” However in response to a formal inquiry from Congressman Donald Albosta (Democrat, Michigan and chairmen of the House subcommittee responsible for enforcing the Ethics in Government Act), two senior Reagan administration officials admitted to seeing and using the documents. Chief of Staff Howard Baker said in a letter to the Congressman that he recalled seeing “a large loose-leaf bound book that was thought to have been given to the Reagan camp by someone with the Carter camp” to CIA Director William Casey, Reagan’s campaign manager at the time[6] Casey said he didn’t recall the book and in fact wouldn’t have touched it with a 10-foot poll.[7] However, David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, admitted to Albosta that he not only saw the material but that he had used it in preparing to play the role of Carter in mock debates with Reagan. Faced with the Baker and Stockman admissions along with continued pressure from the media and Congress, Reagan asked the Justice Department to investigate the matter.

The scandal continued to expand and appeared to some to possibly threaten Reagan’s 1984 campaign for re-election. Carter materials were found in Reagan campaign files that matched in many respects a copy of the 1980 briefing book that Carter representatives provided the Justice Department and White House. The materials in the book laid out the major strategies Carter intended to use in the debate along with “major strategic thrusts and ripostes in anticipating Mr. Reagan and defending the Carter record.”[8] Former Carter aides argued that anyone who examined the transcript of the 1980 debate closely could clearly see how Reagan had used the purloined material to his advantage. And, a senior official of the 80’ Reagan campaign told reporters that he remembered Baker, David Gergen (Reagan’s Director of Communications), and others in the campaign boasting at the time that they had inside information on the Carter campaign.

The Justice Department launched what Reagan called “monitoring” and Justice officials called an “active review,” whatever that meant. The FBI said it would begin interviewing Reagan 1980 campaign workers to find out what they knew. Democrats and Republicans in the meantime began to squabble over whether there was sufficient material to warrant hearings on the matter even though the White House had found and released hundreds of pages of Carter materials that were discovered in Reagan campaign files. The Baker staff and Casey staff began arguing over who knew what, when, and where and who might have “run” the mole in Carter’s campaign if there had been a “mole” which no one was admitting. The Chairman of the Democratic Party called for an independent prosecutor to look into the matter. White House spokesperson, Larry Speakes reassured the press that the Justice Department was “looking into the whole matter, moles and woodchucks and all.”[9]

The controversy surrounding the theft and use of the Carter papers continued for nearly a year. After an eight month investigation, the Justice Department announced that it had found no evidence of theft of the Carter documents and no criminal wrongdoing of any kind and thus saw no reason to appoint a special prosecutor or pursue the matter further.[10] After an 11-month investigation a Congressional sub-committee disagreed. It found that “the presence, acknowledged receipt, and use of [the Carter campaign materials] in the Reagan...campaign showed that some crimes has occurred…[that] any Carter staff member who without authorization handed over the briefing books…may have committed embezzlement, and that Reagan aides who used [the documents] knowing they were stolen may be guilty of receiving stolen property.”[11] A federal court judge in response to a private lawsuit agreed with the sub-committee that the Ethics Act of 1978 may have been violated and ordered the Attorney General to appoint an independent counsel. However, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals overturned the judge’s ruling and, as Time put it, the scandal that had been dubbed “Debategate” simply fizzled.[12] 

In a close election featuring a media personality whose ability to govern had be questioned, that media personality who was the Republican candidate won in part, maybe large part, because someone stole inside information from the Democratic Party that gave him an advantage in responding to questions about his fitness to govern.  Is it happening again?

[1] See Clymer Adam, “Carter and Reagan to Meet Tonight in Debate That Could Deicide Race,” New York Times, 1980/October 28, A1.
[3] Hedrick Smith, “No Clear Winner Apparent; Scene is Simple and Stark,” The New York Times, 1980/October 29, A1.
[4] ABC and Bell Labs conducted an instant viewer poll in which viewers were invited to call one number to register a vote for Carter as the debate winner and another number to register a vote for Reagan.  Viewers were charged 50 cents per call but presumably could call as many times as they wanted.  As it turned out 650,000 votes were cast at the rate of some 5,000 per minute.  The results were two to one in favor of Reagan.  Bell Labs also won, taking in an estimated $325,000 for its efforts.  See John J. O’Connor, “TV: Instant Poll Steals Post-Debate Scene,” The New York Times, 1980/October 30, C.26.
[5] “Reagan Easily Beats Carter; Republicans Gain in Congress; D’Amato and Dodd,” The New York Times, 1980/November 5, A1.
[6] See Phil Gailey, “Baker and Stockman Report Receiving ’80 Carter Material,” The New York Times, 1983/June 24, D.14.
[7] Francis X. Clines, “Casey Says He ‘Wouldn’t Touch’ Papers from Carter Campaign,” The New York Times, 1983/July 6, A.1.
[8] Francis X. Clines, “Reagan Asks Inquiry into Papers Reportedly Purloined from Carter,” The New York Times, 1983/June 28, A.1.
[9] Francis X. Clines, “F.B.I. Likely to Ask Key Reagan Aides About 1980 Debate,” The New York Times, 1983/July 2, 1.1.
[10] Robert E. Taylor, “Justice Agency Ends ‘Debategate’ Inquiry and Says No Evidence of Crime was Found,” The Wall Street Journal, 1984/February 24, 1.
[11] Stuart Taylor, Jr., “Campaign Papers Remain Mystery,” The New York Times, 1984/June 18, B.9.  Also see “Excerpts from Report on How Reagan Camp Got Carter’s Briefing Papers,” The New York Times, 1984/May 24, A.24.
[12] “The Debategate Probe Fizzles,” Time, 1984/July 9 at,9171,950083,00.html.

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