Out of America: Political legends begin to lose their glamour

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - This has been a rotten autumn for campaign strategists in the United States, those political celebrities only a mite less luminous than the men they help to elect. Take, for instance, James Carville, a political brawler from Louisiana whose preferred office dress is jeans and a T-shirt. He is widely credited with masterminding Bill Clinton's victory. Mr Carville is shortly to burst upon movie screens as the star of War Room, a behind-the-scenes documentary on the Clinton campaign. His exhortations at a low point in the New Hampshire primary give the flavour. 'Every time a Democrat comes along with new ideas, the Republicans ambush 'em up here,' he is shown telling party workers. 'If we win this one we're gonna knock this shit back fo' evuh.' Thus are political legends made.

These days, alas, the legend is a little worn. Such was his fame that the Prime Minister of Greece, Constantine Mitsotakis, enlisted his services in the recent general election. But to no avail, despite campaign ads with Mr Carville's fingerprints all over them. They depicted his opponent, Andreas Papandreou, embracing Saddam Hussein and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. 'Which Greece do you want?' inquired the voice-over. Not the Greece of Mr Mitsotakis, was the voters' resounding answer.

Then came a second failure closer to home: the Republicans unseated Jim Florio, the incumbent and Mr Carville's client, in this month's governor's election in New Jersey - a race that a fortnight earlier Mr Florio seemed to have sewn up. Mr Carville's has but one consolation: the man who bested him is in even worse straits. And so to the extraordinary tale of Ed Rollins.

Mr Rollins wears a conventional suit and tie. But, like James Carville, he speaks his mind. Back in 1982 he had the temerity to pronounce Maureen Reagan a 'lousy candidate' for the Senate, even though he was then working at the White House for her father. In 1991 (with much prescience) he publicly wrote off George Bush - only (somewhat less presciently) to briefly hitch up with the Republicans' nemesis, Ross Perot. But when he managed the triumphant campaign of Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey all talk of betrayal was forgotten.

Last week he blew it. In remarks injudicious even by Mr Rollins' standards, he bragged to political reporters that the New Jersey Republicans had spent dollars 500,000 ( pounds 340,000) to bribe black ministers not to urge their mostly Democratic parishioners to vote. The result has been uproar. The black community is outraged, while a tortuous semi-denial by Mr Rollins has only increased the Republicans' embarrassment. Separate inquiries are being conducted by the New Jersey authorities, federal prosecutors and the FBI. On Monday a Newark court ordered Mr Rollins to testify under oath to Democratic officials. If skulduggery is proven, Ms Whitman's election will be declared void.

The real mystery, though, is not what Mr Rollins said but why he said it. For all the righteous indignation, US elections are not fought by the Queensberry rules. 'We played the game the way the game is played in New Jersey and elsewhere,' said Mr Rollins, and on that at least it's hard to disagree. The Republicans may be the worst offenders: witness a 1981 episode of voter intimidation in New Jersey, when 'ballot security officers' in black precincts warned that incorrect registration was a crime. Or the 125,000 postcards sent to mainly black voters by the 1990 Senate campaign of Jesse Helms in North Carolina, telling recipients they were not eligible to vote.

But Democrats, too, are apt to push the law to the limit. Huge sums are regularly allotted for unspecified 'get-out- the-vote' activities. And what of this year's Los Angeles mayoral contest, when the state party bought dollars 100,000-worth of doughnuts for voters in Democratic districts who turned out on election day. And who is the more guilty, the bribe- giver or the bribe-taker? Bill Clinton put it perfectly when he pointed out that lives had been lost so that blacks could have the vote in the United States. 'If this is true, then it was terribly wrong for anyone to give money to depress voter turnout . . . it was terribly wrong for anyone to accept that money to render that non- service to the country.'

And herein lies the damage done by Mr Rollins. Not least of the reasons why race relations here are in a such a mess has been the unsubtle effort by Republicans to present themselves as a whites-only party. It worked in the 1980s but failed in 1992. Hence this year's embellishment: if they're not going to vote for us let's make sure they don't vote for anyone. Small wonder that for Mr Rollins a rotten autumn has the reek of terminal disgrace.