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From The Indian Express

High on low-blows

By V. Venkatesan

FIRST THERE was the stench of rotten fish when the incumbent President was likened to the head of a putrid piscine. Things only got progressively smellier, with the key players then bandying petty, puerile charges in public. Sure, they haven't stooped to calling each other names (unlike politicians nearer home), but when you've said that, you've said everything about the current U.S. presidential campaign.

Even given allowance for hyperbole in a race with such high stakes, the rhetoric this time has bordered markedly on the silly and the slanderous. Republican Vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle, who more than anyone else has been at the receiving end of the slings and arrows of outrageous accusations, will readily agree. The Indiana Senator, an avid golfer, has had problems teeing off with his campaign following his reluctant admission that he pulled strings to land a soft commission with the Indiana National Guard during the Vietnam war. Although he denies he did it to evade active serve (and possible death) in Vietnam, the hawkish conservative has been dubbed a chicken-hearted draft-dodger who didn't put his rifle then where his patriotic rhetoric is now. Twenty years later, the ghost of a war which most Americans agree they should never have fought continues to haunt Quayle.

Nor is this the only alleged skeleton in Quayle's cupboard. Another -- this one packed with flesh and blood -- comes in the shapely form of Paula Parkinson, a Washington lobbyist with whom Quayle and two other Congressmen spent a weekend during a golfing vacation in Florida in 1980. No evidence of any sexual misdemeanour exists, but Paula, now a model, has promised to "reveal all" in the October 1 issue of Playboy magazine. Even an unsubstantiated charge that Quayle made amorous advances at her during that weekend may hamper his political advancement, even if only a trifle.

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, too, has received some nasty low-blows on his person. His opponent, George Bush, says of him, "I wouldn't be surprised if he things that a naval exercise is something you find in a Jane Fonda workout book." And at another time, "sometimes, he gives me the impression that he is opposed to every new weapons system since the slingshot." The idea is to tear Dukakis apart by portraying him as a dangerous liberal who will jeopardise America's interests by being too soft on the Soviets. Joe McCarthy lives!

Uncomplimentary as it is, "liberal" is probably the nicest word the Republicans have employed to describe Dukakis. President Ronald Reagan, asked to comment on unverified rumours that the Democrat had once been under psychiatric treatment, said, "I don't want to pick on that invalid." And Bush suggested that Dukakis was unpatriotic because as Governor of Massachusetts in 1997, he had vetoed a bill requiring mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag in classrooms. Truth to tell, the U.S. Supreme Court had in 1943 held that such enforced recitation was unconstitutional, and Dukakis (who was not against recitation, only its enforcement) was legally in the right. But that didn't stop the innuendoes. And a Republican Senator took another swipe at Dukakis' patriotism when he said that the candidate's wife Kitty Dukakis had been photographed burning an American flag while she was an anti-war demonstrator during the 1960s -- an unproved cheapshot that was later withdrawn, as was Reagan's gaffe.

In this close race, both candidates had until late last week been assiduously wooing the constituency of the mean-spirited. But probably sensing that this kind of "negative campaigning" may backfire, they have eased up a bit, focussing more on unveiling plans for the future, however vague, than on hacking away at the other guy's past. But given the close contest ahead, and considering that campaign rhetoric will only be stepped up from now until November 8, it will require exercise of considerable restraint on both sides to keep seasoned debate from descending into hysterical outpouring. n

(Published in Indian Express, September 18, 1988.)

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