Getting Nasty

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"Have you no sense of decency, sir?" That was the question Army counsel Joseph Welch asked Joseph McCarthy 35 years ago when the Senator ruined the lives of those who did not agree with him by impugning their character and patriotism. The same question could be posed to Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater, his communications director Mark Goodin and Congressman Newt Gingrich.

Acting directly or through subordinates, this trio last week worked to spread a long-standing unsubstantiated rumor designed to humiliate new House Speaker Thomas Foley. Just as Foley was poised to take the gavel from departing Speaker Jim Wright's hand, a memo from the Republican National Committee was circulating to state party chairmen and G.O.P. Congressmen. Titled "Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet," the memo compared his voting record with that of Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, an acknowledged homosexual. For days, an aide to Republican minority whip Newt Gingrich had been calling more than a dozen reporters trying to get the homosexuality rumor into print.

An effective smear has at its core an outrageous charge that would be devastating if true. The author must be both coy and cowardly: he must make the charge stick while retaining deniability. Although Goodin, Atwater's friend of a decade, took the fall, the tactic bore the unmistakable Atwater stamp. As Bush's 1988 campaign manager, Atwater specialized in character assassination: last summer Michael Dukakis was dogged by rumors that he had been treated for depression. In a similar incident in 1980, Atwater was managing the campaign of South Carolina Congressman Floyd Spence when a reporter asked Spence's Democratic opponent whether he had undergone psychiatric treatment. When the Democrat accused Atwater of planting the question, Atwater said he wouldn't respond to charges made by someone who had been "hooked up to jumper cables." Atwater's candidate won.

Before Atwater saw that he had gone too far, he stood by Goodin's memo. On Monday he called it "no big deal" and "factually accurate." Like the police captain in Casablanca who was shocked that gambling was going on, Atwater professed astonishment that anyone could interpret the memo as a slur on Foley. Other Republicans who understood the memo's unmistakable meaning dissociated themselves, from George Bush on down. Even Congressman Vin Weber, a close friend of Gingrich's, called the memo an "abomination," pointing out that this had nothing to do with enforcing tough ethical standards and everything to do with "character assassination." By Tuesday, Atwater was backpedaling, saying he had not approved the memo: "I feel confident that if I had seen this, it would not have gone out." Atwater apologized to Foley; Gingrich also apologized and disavowed his aide's actions. Wednesday Goodin cleaned out his desk.

Democrats like Beryl Anthony of Arkansas contend that this is another episode in the "bad employee-good superior" political mud wrestling that Atwater perfected during the campaign. Staffers, encouraged by their bosses, go on the attack, then -- like a corps of civilian Ollie Norths -- take the blame and are publicly rebuked. The superiors apologize.

Yet by the time Atwater and Gingrich apologized, the rumor had achieved its purpose. Foley was forced to deny it both on national television and before a party caucus. One Democrat at the meeting said that all around him eyes were averted when Foley, married 20 years and with the bearing and rectitude of a parish priest, had to assure his colleagues he was not a homosexual.

Whether out of embarrassment or conciliation, Foley sought to downplay the incident, calling for an end to this "political Beirut." Barney Frank was less forgiving. Calling the story scurrilous, he warned Republicans, "If they don't cut the crap, something's going to happen, and I'm going to happen it." He knows of five top Republican officials who are homosexual, he says, adding, "My list will be accurate."

The Congress now stands as a paradox of Lord Acton's observation that power corrupts. Losing corrupts too; 35 years of rule by the majority Democrats has embittered congressional Republicans. Even the normally easygoing minority leader, Bob Michel, has toughened his tone, angering Democrats by calling their monopoly on power a "corrosive acid upon the restraints of stability and comity."

Foley is not letting personal attacks on him keep the House from cleaning up its mess; his first joint act with Michel was to ask for a tough ethics-reform package. Investigating Congressmen who abuse the public trust is the proper business of the House. Mudslinging is not.