A Career of Impugning Patriotism, Pandering to Prejudice
Scott Howell is Fed Up New Yorkers’ Hack of the Month. Howell, who has been at the center of some of the most reprehensible campaigns in the post-Atwater political era, richly deserves a lifetime achievement award. But for the time being at least, we’ll stick with our Hack of the Month format. The “Atwater” to whom we refer is, of course, Lee Atwater, one of Howell’s early mentors and a fellow South Carolinian.
Herbert Weston Scott Howell III
Atwater, who ran Bush the Elder’s successful 1988 presidential campaign, was the leading Republican hit man of his time. Following that year’s election, Bush appointed him to chair the Republican National Committee.
Howell had worked on Bob Dole’s unsuccessful effort to win the Republican nomination that year. After the campaign, Atwater recruited Howell to the RNC and sent him around the country as a campaign operative to help Republican candidates. It was at one of those campaigns, this one in Texas, that Howell met Karl Rove, who was running a political direct mail operation. Shortly after Atwater died in March 1991, Howell moved to Texas and went to work for Rove.
That’s the bare-bones political biography of an operative mentored by Lee Atwater and Karl Rove who, unsurprisingly, ranks near the top of the Democrats’ most-hated list. Howell claims it’s just professional jealousy because he’s beaten them so often. But it’s not only Democrats. Howell professes not to understand why so many regard him as the embodiment of so much that’s wrong with our political system.
“The body of my work has been largely positive,” he told a Washington Times reporter. “There are isolated campaigns that people would like to sit there and highlight, but the bottom line is we try to be very hopeful and forward-thinking and positive and try to tell the story, and draw contrasts where they are appropriate.”
The trademark character assassination campaigns he’s run over the years are well known, but Howell isn’t the public celebrity that Atwater was — and Rove still is. As Warner Wolfe, a famous sportscaster, used to say, “Let’s go to the videotape.” Or in this case, let’s take a look at some of Howell’s greatest hits. Rudy Giuliani was a client but his presidential campaign was a flop. It didn’t last long enough for Howell to get going. Here are some samples of his work.
The Saxby Chambliss Terrorist Spot
Among the most notorious of Howell’s campaign ads was the job he did on Democratic Senator Max Cleland, who was running for reelection against Saxby Chambliss from Georgia, our “Madam of the Month.”
The facts are undisputed. Cleland was a triple-amputee Vietnam War hero. Chambliss never served in that war or any other; he had a series of student deferments, and a bad knee. Cleland had opposed a provision in George W. Bush’s Homeland Security Bill because it had gratuitously stripped federal employees of their collective bargaining rights. The Howell ad portrayed Cleland’s face alongside those of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The ad suggested that Cleland was thwarting the war on terror, not fighting for the country’s safety. See the ad here:
During an interview some six years later MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked Chambliss whether he regretted the ad.
Chambliss replied, “You know, Andrea, that ad is truthful in every way. . . . He voted against George Bush eleven times on the issue of homeland security. . . . You have to remember the two most notable terrorists in the world at that point in time were Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. We were trying to protect the homeland. We were trying to create an agency that was going to protect Americans and in fact we did that, we did it without Cleland’s vote.”
When the ad ran, John McCain said, “I’d never seen anything like that ad. Putting pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden next to the picture of a man who left three limbs on the battlefield — it’s worse than disgraceful. It’s reprehensible.”
Parenthetically, readers should know that patriotic-sounding legislation is sometimes loaded with objectionable, irrelevant provisions, forcing Democrats to vote against it so that the votes can be used as attack ads in future campaigns.
Scott Howell didn’t want any credit for the ad, either then or now. At the time of Mitchell’s interview, McCain had gotten off his Straight Talk Express and was campaigning for Chambliss.
Former Senator Max Cleland: his successor Saxby Chambliss
A Man profoundly disabled while serving his country smeared as weak on National security by and opponent who sat out Vietnam with a draft deferment. For more on Chambliss and his subsequent career, see February's "Whores Who Would be Madams."
The World Trade Center Change-the-Subject Spot
In 2004, Howell helped produced an ad for Bush The Younger that showed firefighters coming out of the rubble of the World Trade Center carrying a flag-draped coffin. It was called “Safer, Stronger.” Howell used actors. The president of the International Association of Firefighters blasted the ad as “phony.”
As with today’s Republican candidates, the ad was intended to change the subject from Bush’s economic policies favoring the rich to his national security chops. A group of September 11 widows bitterly criticized that political exploitation of the terrorist attack.
Harold, Call Me
Howell produced the notorious “Harold, call me” ad. Harold Ford Jr., the Tennessee congressman, was running for Senate against Bob Corker. The seductive white actress was inviting Ford, who is black, to call her. The racially exploitive ad was condemned even by prominent Republicans. (See the January “Hacks & Flacks”.) As Howell had produced it for the RNC, Corker was able to derive the benefit and disavow ownership. Corker is now chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Here is the ad:
The Hitler Spot
Howell produced the notorious Hitler ad in a Virginia race for governor that pitted his client, Jerry Kilgore, against Tim Kaine. The sixty-second Hitler spot featured crime victims and the elderly Stanley Rosenbluth, staring into the camera: “Tim Kaine voluntarily represented the man who murdered my son. Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn’t qualify for the death penalty. This was the worst mass murderer in modern times.”
Previously, Kaine had said he was personally opposed to the death penalty but that he would enforce it. The ad was scheduled for viewing around the time of the Jewish High Holiday, Yom Kippur. Here it is:
George Allen Forgets the Cameras are Running
Howell has had some other tough losses as well. He was the political consultant for Virginia Senator George Allen, who lost his reelection campaign to Jim Webb, a loss that gave the Democrats control of the Senate. But Allen lost that one on his own when he was caught on videotape making ethnic slurs.
The Brown Hands Spot
Howell had more success with his “brown hands” spot, the attack ad for Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn. That ad, aimed against Democrat Brad Carson, showed a pair of dark-skinned hands counting money while a narrator intoned, “Brad Carson voted to make it easier for illegal immigrants to cross our borders and take our jobs. And Carson voted to allow immigrants to get on welfare.” Howell’s ad took a page from the 1990 “white hands” spot that North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms ran against his opponent, Democrat Harvey Gantt, a black man. That ad depicted a pair of white hands crumpling up a letter as a narrator said, “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority. Because of a racial quota.” The message was clear: racial hiring quotas were killing jobs for white applicants. Helms won a narrow victory. See the ad here:
As with the Corker ad, the Coburn ad wasn’t financed by the candidate but by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
We could go on for many more pages about the Republican hit man, Scott Howell. Did we mention Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the sinking of John Kerry’s campaign? But before we conclude, a few words are in order about Howell’s colleague, Heath Thompson, a former partner at Scott Howell & Company. A founding partner of “Something Else Strategies,” Thompson is listed on Marc Rubio’s website as a “senior political adviser.” The SES website states Thompson’s basic philosophy.
“Our philosophy is simple. Do what it takes to win.”
Howell and Thompson were heavily involved in Bush’s 2000 South Carolina Republican primary campaign. It was the do-or-die election for Bush. McCain was beating him. Bush won by 11 points. Here’s how he did it. Flyers began to appear under the windshield wipers of parked cars claiming that McCain had fathered a black child. Primary voters began getting e-mail messages from Richard Hand, a Bible professor at Bob Jones University. The messages said that “McCain chose to sire children without marriage.”
McCain’s campaign staff told a Vanity Fair reporter that they has seen the “Negro child” flyers “all over every car” at the Bush-McCain debate. One campaign aide said, “I’ve seen the worst form of racist sons of bitches in the world in David Duke, but this was unbelievable.” There was much more to come.
Push Polling the Sludge Right into Voters’ Brains
The Bush campaign spread the McCain rumors through push polls. These are telemarketing campaigns that spread false information in the guise of asking questions, “Would you vote for McCain if you knew . . . [fill in the blank.]”
Push polls can be very effective and they’re cheap. This is because the campaign doesn’t have to record the answers or do any analysis. They aren’t polls; the so-called pollsters are just reading from nasty, false scripts. Push polling was one of Lee Atwater’s specialties. Heath Thompson was the South Carolina director for the Bush campaign.
On January 25, 2015 Scott Howell was on the way to church when he suffered cardiac arrest. His chances of survival were not good. But he recovered. And he’s back in business as unrepentant as ever. Lindsay Graham, one of his clients, had this to say:
“It’s a personal friendship,” Graham told CQ Roll Call. “He comes from my part of the world, and professionally I’ve known him for a long time. He does a good job, he’s accessible, I trust him, and all I can say is that I am so glad that he is back in the game.”
Well, that’s Lindsay Graham, the Republican “moderate.” Neither Howell nor Graham or any of the Republicans mentioned in this piece, or frankly any we know, have taken a step back or have taken Lee Atwater’s deathbed confession to heart. In a February 1991 article for Life magazine, Atwater, who died of a brain tumor in 1991, famously repented for his slash-and-burn political career:My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The’80s were about acquiring—acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn’t I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us through the ’90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.
Written for Fedupnewyorkers.org