WASHINGTON -- After every presidential election since 1972, the Institute of Politics at Harvard has gathered key campaign aides to conduct a serious postmortem of the campaign.
Their look at the 1996 election, just released in book form, doesn't do much to dispel the impression at the time that the campaign was, by and large, a pretty dull one.
Nevertheless, it is revealing as an exercise in which the participants, free of the political requirement of putting the best face on their campaigns that muzzles them in the course of the drama, let their hair down and demonstrate a measure of candor they don't allow themselves during the campaign.
There are no bombshells in the exchanges between the various camps, with a few kibitzing journalists thrown in.
But taken as a whole, the conversations confirm the single-mindedness of these managers in doing what they think it takes to win.
Campaign managers, to be sure, have always wanted to win.
The degree, however, to which a philosophy of anything-goes has come to dominate their thinking, with very little focus on what will be sound policy for the country, is deplorably apparent.
In a discussion about what would have happened had retired TC Gen. Colin Powell entered the race for the Republican nomination, Tony Fabrizio, pollster and strategist for Sen. Bob Dole's campaign, talked of researching Mr. Powell's background for "arrows in our quiver" to use against him.
A questioner, making reference to the harshly negative campaign ads by challenger Steve Forbes against Bob Dole, asked Mr. Fabrizio whether "you were prepared to do to Powell what you say Forbes was doing to you."
Mr. Fabrizio replied: "Exactly what we did to Forbes and (Lamar) Alexander. . . Absolutely. All is fair in love and war."
Other comments by other participants underscore how presidential politics has come to be thought of as war by those who wage it.
The objective is to advance the interests of one's candidate as the be-all, even when it comes to blatant lying and misrepresentation.
While this conclusion is about as shocking as finding gambling going on in Rick's Cafe, the willingness of some of the participants to confess is a bit boggling, even in this day and age.
For example, in one discussion about the 1996 debates, Bill Clinton strategist George Stephanopoulos was asked why his campaign insisted on debates with Senator Dole in early and middle October rather than later "when people were watching the election."
His answer: "Because we didn't want them to pay attention. . . We wanted the debates to be a non-event."
The reason: Bill Clinton was well ahead and they didn't want anything to rock his boat close to the Nov. 5 election.
Also, Mr. Stephanopoulos explained that although the Clinton campaign created the impression it favored having Ross Perot in the first debate when the Dole campaign didn't, "We didn't want Perot in either."
Well, he was asked, "Why did you make us think you did?" Reply: "Because we wanted Perot's people to vote for us."
But perhaps the most revealing testimony of the anything-goes mentality came from Scott Reed, Mr. Dole's campaign manager.
Asked why his campaign had continued to run a television ad that was "demonstrably false," he replied: "We didn't want to admit we had made a mistake. . . We thought pulling it off would have created a turmoil that we had made a mistake and that would have helped Forbes."
A questioner asked: "Are you comfortable with that decision now?"
Answer: "Absolutely. Definitely the right decision. ... And I'd do it again. ... I would have preferred not to make it wrong to begin with, but once we had done it we had to stick with it.
"It would have shown weakness at a time we couldn't afford to show an ounce of weakness."
The comments moved a Pat Buchanan campaign manager, Terence Jeffrey, to observe:
"It's just amazing. This is an example of why most Americans hate political operatives."
Also discussed was the difference between "push polls" and "suppression calls" -- the first asking voters by phone whether, if they knew such-and-such (true or not) about an opponent, they would vote for him; and the second telling supporters of a candidate negative things about him.
Mr. Fabrizio owned up to "more than 10,000" push polls against Mr. Forbes in advance of the Iowa caucuses.
There was more of the same as the opposing campaign operatives played true confessions.
As Vince Lombardi once said: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 10/06/97