Iwas comfortably ensconced in my easy chair watching the vice presidential debate two weeks ago, when the phone in the kitchen rang.
Thinking it was one of my friends with a witty commentary on the debate, I rushed in to answer it. I had barely finished saying "Hello" when a weak male voice on the other end said, "Help."
The man hung up before I had a chance to ask whether he was watching the televised debate, had just finished reading some of the coverage of the 6th District congressional race or actually needed assistance.
Election campaigns this year seem to feature the worst in political tactics: Tear down your opponent before you are torn down. While negative campaigning has always been a part of American politics, the success of the attack ads in the 1988 presidential race seems to have opened the floodgates.
No longer do politicians use the campaigns as a means of identifying important issues and problems, analyzing them and then proposing solutions.
Instead, citizens have become spectators at verbal sparring matches that belong either on "Saturday Night Live" or a professional wrestling show. Citizens get one-liners, repackaged political slogans and insults, instead of substantive political debates about important issues. No wonder The Sun and the New York Times used boxing metaphors -- jabs and knockouts -- in their headlines on the first presidential debate.
Voters in the 6th congressional district have been subjected to this type of campaigning since the primaries, and it appears that the mudslinging and name-calling will continue right through election day.
Using a number of half-truths that highlighted Beverly Byron's incumbency, Del. Thomas Hattery was able to defeat her soundly in the Democratic primary.
Mr. Hattery pointed out that she voted for the congressional pay raise, but neglected to say that congressmen were giving up all honorariums in return. Now members of Congress can only get paid from the U.S. Treasury and not from every special interest seeking favorable legislation. Mr. Hattery never bothered to point that out in his primary campaign.
Mr. Hattery also blamed Mrs. Byron for the savings and loan scandal, even though just about every member of Congress had supported the S&L; bailout. Without those taxpayer-financed rescue packages, we would have seen hundreds of thousands of depositors lose their entire savings. The S&L; insurance fund ,, was bankrupt, and most congressmen voted to use taxpayer money because they didn't want a repeat of the early 1930s. In those years, when banks failed, Americans received pennies on their dollars.
In the general election, the tables have turned on Mr. Hattery. His Republican opponent, Roscoe Bartlett, has resorted to a series of smears and character assassinations in an effort to defeat him.
Mr. Bartlett accused Mr. Hattery of "embezzling" Maryland tax dollars by failing to fill out his expense accounts properly, claiming to have eaten meals in Annapolis he never ate and using hotel rooms while he was sleeping in his own bed in Mount Airy. Based on flimsy evidence, Mr. Bartlett started hurling charges and accusations of serious criminal activity. With the evidence Mr. Bartlett assembled, he had trouble making a case that Mr. Hattery was a poor record-keeper, let alone engaged in any criminal activity.
State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said there was no basis for embarking on a criminal investigation. Nevertheless, Mr. Bartlett and his staff persist in making these baseless charges.
Why? Probably because some campaign consultant advised Mr. Bartlett to do it. Even though Mr. Hattery is not an congressional incumbent, he is an elected official. Mr. Bartlett apparently believes that he can smear him with the same tar brush that Republicans are using against Democratic incumbents who misused the House bank and post office.
Mr. Hattery has responded in kind. His campaign informed us that Mr. Bartlett used a divinity school deferment to avoid the World War II draft and accepted about $5,000 in farm subsidies.
Political candidates may think this type of campaigning is necessary in order to get into office. But voters don't want to be hustled by spin doctors, handlers and political consultants. They don't want to see campaigns where the tactics overwhelm the issues at stake. Just look at the questions voters asked the presidential candidates during the second debate.
Whoever wins in the 6th District, his stature will be diminished. His ability to legislate will be impaired because the political message from the campaign has nothing to do with the issues in Congress. The voters haven't been educated and there has been little serious discussion of important issues facing the nation and the district.
And what will the victor do two years from now when he has to face the voters? Resort to the same kind of campaigning? If he does, I'll be the voice at the other end of the phone pleading for help.
Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.