When he first ran for president, few people knew or cared what George W. Bush did during the Vietnam War. Newspaper articles revealed that Bush had enlisted in the Texas Air National Guard — perhaps through political connections — and that his exact military record was undistinguished, at best. But the story quickly disappeared from the headlines.
Four years later, the basic facts have changed little. We know just about as much now as we did then about what Bush was doing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But in 2000, the story did not stick. Today, it does.
The difference is not, as White House spokesman Scott McClellan claims, that the Democrats are engaged in “gutter politics.” Bush’s military record is not an issue because the media has gotten more liberal, or because the nation is more partisan. Instead, his record is an issue because the context has changed.
In 2000, when military service seemed more and more unnecessary as a requirement for higher office, what Bush was doing in the early 1970s did not matter. Bush’s defense of his past — “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible” — seemed to suffice.
Today, Bush has chosen to campaign as a “war president,” so his record in past wars suddenly seems more relevant. And not coincidentally, the stories about Bush’s guard service resurfaced just as decorated veteran John Kerry emerged as his main challenger for a second term.
Now, the story has taken on a new and different meaning. For Democrats, it provides an opportunity to paint Bush as somebody who was pro-war — when it came to Vietnam or Iraq — but was not willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Today, the story about Bush’s military service sticks because it taps into deeper concerns about the president that did not exist in the 2000 campaign.
Every presidential campaign, seemingly inconsequential issues like Bush’s military record or an interview John Kerry gave in 1970 ends up dominating the headlines and the airwaves. These anecdotes and gaffes are often dismissed as “the politics of personal destruction.” These revelations, the candidates contend, are irrelevant or taken out of context — which is often true. If only, political purists lament with a sigh, the campaign were just about the issues.
But presidential campaigns are almost never just about the issues. Like it or not, campaigns are about the stories candidates tell about themselves, the stories they tell about each other, and, ultimately, the stories the public believes. And as irrelevant as they may seem, these stories — especially the ones that “stick” over the course of the campaign — often have substance behind them, encompassing larger issues that suggest how a president will act in office.
Indeed, when stories stick, they usually stick for a reason. In 1992, campaigning for president, George H.W. Bush visited a convention of the National Grocers Association — not exactly the place one would expect big campaign news to break. But visiting a mock-up of a checkout line, Bush was supposedly fascinated by the bar-code scanner, a device that had been in supermarkets for over a decade. The story soon became national news. The story symbolized a president seemingly out of touch with average Americans, one who did not understand what it was like to be middle-class in a recession. With Bill Clinton determined to focus his campaign on the economy and trumpeting his hardscrabble Arkansas childhood, this was a damning image.
Similarly, the story that Al Gore invented the Internet “stuck” because Americans doubted that he was genuine. And when Howard Dean made his now-famous speech a month ago, it stuck in the minds of voters not just because it made good TV, but because it tied into concerns — warranted or not — that Dean was a loose cannon. If these gaffes had been committed by another candidate, they probably would never have made a difference. But because they tied into the fears and anxieties voters already had, they became stinging blows.
Presidential campaigns are not only different because they are so important; but they also actually work differently from anything else in American politics. I would guess that many Americans — even politically active, well-informed voters — could not pick out their congressman or senator from a police lineup. But people know what their president looks like and sounds like. Issues do matter in presidential campaigns, and many voters may decide who to vote for in November on the basis of Iraq, health care or Social Security. Yet issues change suddenly — remember the talk of surpluses in 2000 — even if presidential elections occur every four years.
So when voters are deciding who to elect to the White House, they want to learn more than they will get from a campaign ad or an official biography. The result is admittedly imperfect: reporters spend more time parsing through Bush’s dental records than his long-term plans for Social Security. In McClellan’s words again, reporters and campaigns end up “trolling for trash.”
But this trash is far from worthless. They help tell stories about who candidates are and what they will do as president. If they stick, they can help make or break presidential elections. And when these stories stick, they stick for a reason.
Jacob Leibenluft is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. He is a staff reporter for the Yale Daily News.