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When Debate "Zingers" Backfired

By       Message Robert Parry     Permalink
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And still more zingers: "We're not running for Dissenter-in-Chief [or] (Quisling-in-Chief, Agitator-in-Chief, Conscientious Objector-in-Chief)."

"Mr. Clinton was going through a mid-war crisis."

"His motto was, '55, 40, and flight to England' [or] (Russia)."

Bush's script writers also advised that "if Clinton seems perplexed by [a] foreign affairs question," Bush should interject this put-down: "Now I know what to get you for Christmas -- a world globe."

Another planned insult read: "If you ever go on 'Jeopardy,' don't choose the category, 'Foreign Heads of State'."

Still another: "The Governor's a little light on geography. He probably has trouble refolding a map of Arkansas."

One multi-purpose "zinger" was designed for either a debate exchange with Clinton about the draft or "if he hedges on any answer." This Bush one-liner went: "I'll bet you drive a Dodge."

"Campaign Mode"

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Though the first President Bush is now viewed in a rose-colored haze, he was not always the beloved elder statesman that he is seen as today. His dark side surfaced most ominously during campaigns when he was in what he called "campaign mode." In both 1988 and 1992, George H.W. Bush unleashed his team of political attack dogs to savage the reputations of his adversaries.

The general election campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988 stands as one of the nastiest in U.S. history, with Bush playing the race card by using Willie Horton, a black inmate who raped a white woman while he was on a Massachusetts prison furlough. Bush also questioned Dukakis' patriotism because of his ACLU membership.

Bush charted a similar course in 1992, with the goal of destroying Bill Clinton's reputation and winning re-election by political default. Documents from that time show that Bush was personally involved in a "silver bullet" strategy aimed at disqualifying Clinton with the voters by portraying the Democrat as disloyal to his country or even a pawn of Soviet bloc intelligence.

In a post-White House interview with federal prosecutors who examined possible criminal violations in Bush's 1992 campaign tactics, the 41 st  president acknowledged that he was "nagging" his aides to press ahead on a sensitive investigation into Clinton's student travels to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Bush also expressed strong interest in rumors that Clinton had sought to renounce his U.S. citizenship.

Bush described himself as "indignant" that his aides failed to discover more about Clinton's student activities. But Bush stopped short of taking responsibility for the subsequent searches of Clinton's records at the State Department.

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"Hypothetically speaking, President Bush advised that he would not have directed anyone to investigate the possibility that Clinton had renounced his citizenship because he would have relied on others to make this decision," the FBI interview report read. "He [Bush] would have said something like, 'Let's get it out' or 'Hope the truth gets out'."

The documents depicted Bush as raging, Nixon-like, about political enemies, demanding action and then counting on his subordinates to ignore some of his more outrageous ideas. When the subordinates didn't and were caught pawing through Clinton's passport records at the State Department, Bush coolly distanced himself from the fallout.

The Passportgate Affair

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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