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Forget Who Dropped the Dime, It's Still News

Surprised that a candidate moved to the front and got hit in the back of the head with a brown envelope full of damning information about his past — information a reasonable voter would want to know when choosing a president?

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Herman Cain, accused, accuses Rick Perry.

Is it surprising that a presidential candidate moved to the front of the pack and got hit in the back of the head with a brown envelope full of damning information about his past?

Shocking that it might have come from the campaign of another presidential candidate who would like to overtake that frontrunner or fend him off?

Amazing that if a campaign did deliver the brown envelope to the news media it did so with the understanding that it would be independently verified and not attributed to the tipster?

If you dropped a pound of hamburger on the kitchen floor, would you be surprised when your dog turned into a biological vacuum cleaner?

This is the nature of political competition: Build yourself up and tear your opponent down. A corollary: Tear your opponent down without appearing to be the sort of beast who would tear down an opponent. That is, do it without leaving fingerprints.

In politics, it’s done with rumors. Through surrogates. Through the news media. Campaigns hire researchers to dig up everything available about the opposition. It’s not enough to know what’s on someone’s resume — you have to know what they left off. Maybe they didn’t get straight A’s in college like they claimed. Maybe the heroic story about the family’s rise from poor to rich left out the part about running rum during Prohibition. Maybe there is a claim about sexual harassment of subordinates.

Some of the women who worked at the National Restaurant Association while Herman Cain was its chief executive complained of behavior they considered sexual harassment — to the point where the trade group settled by paying off a couple of them and having them agree never to talk publicly about their claims.

Seems like something a reasonable voter would want to know when choosing a president.

And it suits the lower standard, too: Clearly, something like that is news. Take the news media out of it for a second — if you heard about it and thought it was accurate and then ran into a friend who shares your interest in politics, you’d repeat it, right? That’s a pretty good definition of news.

Cain and his campaign helped keep the story alive by altering their explanations several times. His response to the revelations about his history at the association kept changing. The story continued to evolve, and that evolution helped keep it from becoming old news.

Blaming another campaign — it really wouldn’t matter which campaign — is an attempt to divert attention from the original accusations and back to politics.

Maybe that will work. Maybe Perry’s campaign was the source of the revelation. Maybe it was Mitt Romney’s. That autopsy is already underway, and given the condition of this particular crime scene, we might never know for certain who passed this particular brown envelope.

If the source is discovered, it might reflect badly on whoever blew this particular whistle. Voters would get to decide whether to hire the sort of person who would dig into a competitor’s background and then slip the research to a reporter who would publish it without revealing the original source. Fair enough.

Voters deserve to know that. What was the motive of the finger-pointer? Depending on the venue, there are up to nine Republicans appearing in debates, vying for the party’s presidential nomination. Every one of them wants to thin the herd, to cut it down, eventually, to one candidate. It’s easier to interest the news media in information about frontrunners. Stories about Cain — good ones and bad ones — multiplied as he ran to the front.

Perry, who was in Cain’s spot before a series of debilitating debate performances, would benefit from a Cain stumble, perhaps more than some other candidates. It certainly doesn’t hurt Romney to get Cain and Perry into a cat fight. Maybe people will shake their heads at it all and take another look at Newt Gingrich.

That’s interesting and newsworthy on its own. But it doesn’t change what was in that brown envelope.

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