Dirty tricks

The 2004 American presidential election is shaping up to be a rough one by recent standards, with questions already abundant about President Bush's National Guard service and Sen. John Kerry's private life. In historical terms, this is quite mild stuff because these days the heavyweight U.S. media are reluctant to get involved in what they see as private issues.

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post, for example, have written about whether President Bush actually carried out his duties as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard in 1973. That has public importance given that trust and national security issues are major campaign themes.

Kerry's record as senator and the support he has or has not received from lobby groups are also obviously fair game.

But neither paper has covered the Kerry story that has engaged the attention of websites, radio and TV talk shows, some of the tabloid papers and elements of the foreign press.

The story is about whether Kerry had a recent affair with a young female intern. (Remember Monica Lewinsky, she was one.) The question, it appears, was first raised by aides in the campaign of retired Gen.Wesley Clark, who was quoted as saying that Kerry's campaign might "implode." It has not so far and Clark has even endorsed Kerry himself.

Kerry said initially, "There is nothing to report," and then when that was challenged as a Clinton style non-denial, he stated clearly enough: "I just deny it categorically. It's untrue."

His supporters hope that this is an end to it. His opponents perhaps hope that he will be caught out. Lying in these cases is usually far worse than the original offence. Just ask Bill.

Dirty tricks, though, are part of American political life. Indeed, it used to be far worse. Richard Nixon was a master of the art. But he suffered some serious consequences subsequently, showing that to be dirty is not necessarily to be smart.

And just to show that this kind of thing goes right back to the start of American campaigning, we have the election of 1800 in which Thomas Jefferson was accused of favoring the teaching of "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest." Jefferson won. Bush and Kerry have gotten off quite lightly.

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