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Negative tone of national campaign becomes local

Friday, October 31, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CDT

Sure, this is Halloween; but I doubt you'll see anything more disturbing tonight than the negative campaign ads we've been subjected to lately. This televised blight began at the presidential level and has seeped, sewage-like, into our local races.

After watching Ed Robb and Chris Kelly go at each other in their commercials, a reasonable person might conclude that neither of these guys is anybody you'd want in the neighborhood, let alone representing us in the legislature.

 And is Judy Baker, the Democratic candidate for Congress, a wastrel and a liar? Is her Republican opponent, Blaine Luetkemeyer, really an accessory to murder? The advertising barrage would have us believe the worst about them both.

According to the commercials, Kenny Hulshof has worked during his years in Congress to bring the country to its knees. Jay Nixon, who's leading Hulshof in the race for governor, is portrayed in the Hulshof ads as both inept and unethical.

In one of the lowest blows struck so far — and with a weekend to go, I fear the worst is yet to come — the organization of motorcyclists who want to ride without helmets sponsored an ad in the Columbia Daily Tribune on Sunday featuring the jailhouse mug shots taken of state Sen. Chuck Graham after his DWI arrest last year.     

I blame Karl Rove. Of course, there's been negative campaigning as long as there have been campaigns. Some of the stuff uttered about the sainted founders of this nation by their political opponents makes today's exchanges look pretty tame. But Rove and his henchman, the late Lee Atwater, raised dirty play to an art form. Remember what they did to poor John McCain in the Republican primary in South Carolina in 2000? Their best (or worst) in 2004 has entered the language as a verb — "to Swift Boat" an opponent.

Proving yet again that the law of gravity also applies to discourse, the dark art of Rovian attack ads has infected even the 24th legislative district of Missouri. Really, we could hardly ask for two better candidates. Incumbent Robb is a retired university economist and a very smart guy. Kelly, now retired from his judgeship, was widely regarded as the brightest light in the legislature when he held the seat he's now trying to regain.

So why did the Robb campaign air ads that intentionally misled about Kelly's character and record? It's easier to understand, though still not especially admirable, that Kelly has replied in kind.

The answer is that candidates and their managers think this stuff works. The example that most famously proves their case is finishing his second term in the White House.

Harvard political scientist Thomas Patterson has written that citizens, especially the young, are turned sour on politics by excessive negativity. Patterson was critiquing news coverage, but I can't help thinking his observation applies with at least equal force to negative advertising.

National polls suggest the McCain camp's negative ads have backfired. Let's hope those findings filter down to local candidates.

In the meantime, we reach for the remote control and remind ourselves this too shall pass.

 George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

 


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