It's time that campaign staffs realize that sleaze isn't selling

Anyone with the slightest appreciation of irony would surely have appreciated a recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal.

Anyone with the slightest appreciation of irony would surely have appreciated a recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal. It snottily reminded readers of Bill and Hillary Clinton's ruthless streak - the latest case in point was the former president's unfair and somewhat bizarre attacks on Barack Obama in January - and the Clintons' willingness to stretch, and snap, the truth in pursuit of their goals.

The irony, of course, is in the Journal's editorial writers' own practices. Respect for truth or fairness has never been their page's most notable calling card.

However, a remarkable thing happened in the South Carolina primary, which took place not long after the Journal's editorial - a piece that turned out to be one snowflake in a blizzard of criticism against the Clinton tactics and some grossly scurrilous attacks against Republican Sen. John McCain.

What happened was that the candidates getting slimed the worst did the best. The tricks being used against Obama and McCain, who won their respective races - in a state famous for sleazy political operations - seem to have backfired.

This is wonderful news. Or it will be if it means that America is turning a corner on the rancid politics so common in the past several decades.

It's way too soon to declare a sea change. But the marketing, PR, and image-crafting professionals who sell candidates and issues are paying close attention - and if we're all lucky they're coming to a conclusion that the American public wants something different in campaigns.

That message plainly didn't reach McCain and his principal challengers, Mitt Romney (who actually dropped out of the race last Thursday) and Mike Huckabee, who continued to launch verbal missiles at each other in the week preceding the Super Tuesday primaries. Most odd was the way that McCain - who has quite the mean streak of his own - proved to be such a sore winner after his triumphs in South Carolina and Florida, which turned him into a front-runner.

But equally plain was how Sens. Clinton and Obama drew a more positive message. Their debate in Los Angeles before Super Tuesday was the epitome of class - a genuine conversation, sometimes spirited but never ugly, that highlighted not just their differences, but their agreements on key issues.

It's undoubtedly too much to hope that campaigns' PR and marketing folks will entirely abandon the attack-dog tendencies of modern politics, much less do so because they believe in truth and honor. However, we can definitely hope that more of them will forego such methods for the practical reason that sleaze doesn't sell as well these days.

Now, make no mistake. There will be plenty of sleazy campaigning yet to come. And some of it will succeed.

But political PR operatives should listen to the people in 2008. The American public realizes that this country is in trouble; that we need some honest, plain talk for once, not vapid personal attacks and strong stands on peripheral issues.

Let's make fear and division the politics of yesterday. Politics is still a sales job, but we'll be far better off buying hard truths mixed with realistic hope.

Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Send e-mail to dan@gillmor.com.

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