Ghost Writers

If you are spelunking the murky depths of the McCain campaign for instances of moral depravity, you’re likely to find plenty to go around.  There has been no shortage of lies, distortions, and sleaze coming from the man the press once adored as a Maverick and Straight Talker.

But, any hardened political cynic would likely be surprised by the shenanigans that have permeated to the top of national press coverage.  Much of what we’ve seen can be found in the annals of political operations; it’s just that much of it is particularly dirty.  And then there are the ghost writers.

I recognize that my participation in and observances of politics doesn’t go back that far, but I have yet to hear of anything like this at all.  My friend Cernig posted on it last night.

A Dutch journalist had went to work separately for both the Obama and the McCain campaigns under cover.  Not a bad way to get a little inside information of the inner workings of a campaign, I suppose.  Having done a little volunteer work myself in the past, the lower level of volunteer work just isn’t that interesting.  You fold fliers, you make phone calls.  If you don’t have people-fear like I do, you knock on doors and try to register new voters.  It’s an important part of the political process, just not a very exciting part.

But then the journalist stumbled upon a job I had never heard of:

The assignment is simple: We are going to write letters to the editor and we are allowed to make up whatever we want — as long as it adds to the campaign. After today we are supposed to use our free moments at home to create a flow of fictional fan mail for McCain. “Your letters,” says Phil Tuchman, “will be sent to our campaign offices in battle states. Ohio. Pennsylvania. Virginia. New Hampshire. There we’ll place them in local newspapers.”

Place them? I may be wrong, but I thought that in the USA only a newspaper’s editors decided that.

“We will show your letters to our supporters in those states,” explains Phil. “If they say: ‘Yeah, he/she is right!’ then we ask them to sign your letter. And then we send that letter to the local newspaper. That’s how we send dozens of letters at once.”

The breach of public trust here is profound.  When I read a letter to the editor from a mother of a soldier serving in Iraq and showing her support, I expect to think her political faith is a little misguided, but that she is speaking from her soul.

As it turns out, she may not have a son in Iraq at all, but may instead be a Dutch journalist:

Let’s loosen up my fingers a little first — and my principles, too. Am I actually allowed to make up letters? At the moment, it seems to be the only way to demonstrate how this is done in a campaign. So yes. I start practicing attractive sentences about Sarah Palin:

“Her biggest plus to me is that, besides being amazingly smart and qualified, she managed to remain a woman like us. She is the PTA hockey moms. She is the working mothers of special needs children. She is every caring mother of a challenging teenager.”

Her pregnant daughter Bristol (17) is not a talking point. A talking point is her son Track (19), who will be deployed to Iraq.

“And most of all, she is just like any mother of a child who deploys to Iraq in the service of this country.”

Now we are getting somewhere. I look around. I type:

“My son, too, is there.”

Oh god, you liar. Now build up suspense. New paragraph.

“And my heart needs him back safe so much.”

Plants in politics are nothing new, nor is being selective about which anecdotes you tell and which you ignore.  When you are making a case that you should be president, you don’t publicize the opinion of someone who dislikes you intensely (unless that person is in turn greatly disliked by the American public).  But having someone write the letters, and then finding someone else to sign them so it looks like they wrote the letter, someone local, someone that others in the community can relate to, the dishonesty at play here is far beyond words.

Indeed, that is where I find myself at this moment.  There is no admonition strong enough to direct at the McCain campaign’s direction, nor is there shame deep enough that these people could feel.  My mind races with broken thoughts; how can we trust him?  Does McCain not trust his own supporters to write coherent and cogent letters?  Does McCain think that personal emotional ties to a campaign can be manufactured and sold like any other product?  Did anyone stop to think that while this may or may not be legal (I have no idea, frankly) that there is something inherently and morally wrong about this whole practice?

And still more thoughts come, less concrete thoughts.  Pushpolls, lying, slander, sleazy ad campaigns, 527’s, all of this and more I’m used to, but this…  I just can’t fathom any person with any kind of moral compass whatsoever sitting down, looking at this idea, and thinking, “Yeah, let’s run with it.”

But while my opinions are at best fractured and many, they all bind at one point; this is yet just another reason why this man should under no circumstances be allowed to serve as President of the United States–we can’t afford someone who will outsource shows of support, just as he appears to be willing to outsource his own morality.

One Response to “Ghost Writers”

  1. Mark says:

    Believe it or not, this is an extremely common practice, though it takes a variety of forms. The highly personalized nature of this particular letter is unusual and definitely far more unethical…but the writer is the undercover reporter, so it does not tell you how common such personalized letters are.

    Like I said, though, it’s really, really common – and by no means the exclusive province of groups on the left or the right. Often it takes the form of an interest group letter-writing campaign to lobby a Congresscritter or group of Congresscritters. The interest group essentially writes up several different letters urging the Congresscritter to support/oppose Bill X. These letters are then sent to the group’s local affiliate, who then asks its members to pick a letter, insert their name, and send it to the Congresscritter and/or local paper.

    This can be more effective than the usual “postcard” campaign where the interest group sends out postcards (with postage prepaid) with preprinted letters urging passage/opposition to the bill in a mailing to its members. In that case, the members then only need to fill out their names and addresses and drop the card in the mail. The problem with this approach, with which a lot of people are familiar, is that it is transparently a form letter – as soon as it reaches the Congresscritter, there’s a good chance it gets thrown out without so much as getting logged.

    The difference in this case is that you have the politician using this form of campaigning to lobby a group of people rather than a group of people using it to lobby a politician. But I doubt this is the first time a Presidential campaign has adopted the practice. FWIW, I don’t think it’s an unethical practice when an interest group does it; on the other hand, it certainly “feels” sleazier when a politician does it to get letters into the paper, even if I can’t rationally say why.

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