As strategists in both parties gird for what all expect to be an unusually nasty presidential election, the stage has been set by the revival of a conservative crew that might be called "the usual suspects" -- including consultants Floyd Brown, Craig Shirley and David Bossie. With new Web sites and fundraising vehicles already running, these veterans of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" against the Clintons are now launching the first wave of "independent" commercial attacks on John Kerry, the Democratic nominee-to-be.
At Citizens United, the boisterous Brown and his sidekick Bossie are raising money to air their latest video creation, which blasts Kerry for his expensive haircuts and his wife's wealth, tagging him as a "rich elitist liberal from Massachusetts who says he's a man of the people."
Meanwhile, Grassfire.org, a new "grass-roots" outfit overseen by Beltway insider Shirley, has produced an ad that claims Kerry is "more liberal than Ted Kennedy." Aside from "nonpartisan educational" groups like Grassfire, his clients have included the Republican National Committee, the Republican Majority Committee, the American Spectator, the Club for Growth, the Conservative Political Action Committee, the Federalist Society, the National Rifle Association, News World Communications and the Washington Times Foundation.
If the names of Brown and Bossie sound more familiar, they attained notoriety together during the Clinton era as indefatigable promoters of the bogus "Whitewater" scandal. They served as publicity agents for David Hale, the crooked and discredited former Little Rock municipal judge whose allegations against the Clintons forced the appointment of an independent counsel. Among mainstream journalists panting for a career-making Watergate-style scandal, Brown and Bossie found many a gullible mark. For nearly a decade they churned out junk night and day. For a while, Bossie went on the payroll of the Senate Whitewater Committee; later he worked for Rep. Dan Burton's House Committee on Government Operations investigating Clinton and Al Gore -- until he was caught distributing doctored tapes to the media.
Their scorched-earth campaign tactics were epitomized by Brown and Bossie's 1992 paperback broadside "Slick Willie: Why America Can't Trust Bill Clinton." Among the ugliest features of this little pamphlet was a chapter of unsupported and anonymous insinuations about Clinton's role in a female student's suicide. Their "investigation" was later called "an unusually brazen dirty tricks operation" in a report on "CBS Evening News." (In light of recent discussion of the president's National Guard service, the authors may now regret at least one of "Slick Willie's" chapter titles -- "Brave Men Died in Vietnam: Where Was Bill Clinton?")
Craig Shirley, who presides over a large, Virginia-based P.R. firm with his wife, Diana Banister, played a less prominent but no less toxic role during the Clinton years. Among Shirley's notable clients were Paula Jones, the Clinton sexual harassment accuser who later modeled for Penthouse; and Gary Aldrich, the retired White House FBI agent whose fabricated tales of Clinton motel trysts and pornographic West Wing Christmas trees made his book a bestseller.
Yet as Kerry has reason to know, these operatives didn't commence their unsavory careers during the Clinton era. In 1988, they made political history with their first intervention in a national campaign, the so-called Willie Horton commercial. That was the racially inflammatory ad that helped bury the presidential hopes of Democrat Michael Dukakis.
The Horton ad appeared not as part of the Bush-Quayle campaign, whose strategists shied away from such obvious racism, but under the auspices of a shadowy organization called "Americans for Bush." According to testimony filed with the Federal Election Commission, which investigated the financing and planning of the Horton ad in 1990, the ad's actual creators included Brown and Shirley. Others involved included Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, and a young producer named Jesse Raiford who was simultaneously working on TV commercials for Roger Ailes, then his boss at the official Bush-Quayle campaign. (FEC commissioners and investigators strongly suspected unlawful collusion between Bush-Quayle and Americans for Bush, but Republican members of the commission quickly killed the probe.)
The rather primitive commercial featured the scary mug shot of Horton -- a sullen, scruffy-looking, African-American murderer who got weekend passes from prison while Dukakis was governor. Its provocative appeal to white fear was so blatant that even the Bush campaign was embarrassed, but Brown gleefully described it as the "silver bullet" that ruined the Democratic nominee.
Brown hasn't entirely lost his taste for stoking racial animosities. He currently works for the Young America's Foundation, where he oversees the indoctrination of youthful conservatives at the former Reagan Ranch. The YAF recently honored Rhode Island student Jason Mattera as the "top conservative student activist in the country," apparently because he sponsored a "whites only" scholarship at his school in protest of affirmative action.
But neither Brown nor his fellow hunters is likely to use racial ammunition against John Kerry. They would be thrilled by a sex scandal, real or faked, and they are eager to stoke resentments against gays and lesbians, not to mention Frenchmen. And although they have so far confined themselves to the tired "Ted Kennedy liberal" trope, that doesn't mean they won't go much further during the eight months ahead. They will do whatever the official Bush campaign can't or won't -- and they have had more than 15 years of target practice.