October Surprises: Some work, some do not
“October surprise” is the name given to the tactic of leveling charges against your political opponent in the last few days leading up to the November election. The surprises are timed so their victims have little or no time to mount an effective response. Sometimes, they work. Sometimes, they do not.
The October Surprise often depends on public ignorance of the facts or the public’s lack of memory of the subject matter. For example, President Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar W. Weinberger, strongly opposed the scheme cooked up by President Reagan’s Director of Central Intelligence, William Casey, and Lt. Colonel Oliver North to sell some low-level anti-tank missiles to Iran, and then use the proceeds to keep the anti-communist Contras of Nicaragua alive until the people of Nicaragua could sweep the Communist Sandinistas from power which they, eventually, did. Moreover, there is no evidence that then Vice President George H.W. Bush knew of the Iran-Contra scheme until he read it in the paper.
No matter. In late October of the campaign between then President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the Iran-Contra special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, indicted Caspar Weinberger in an attempt to revive the Iran-Contra issue and, by implication, link President George H.W. Bush to it. Doubtless, that October Surprise hurt the sitting President. But what really allowed Bill Clinton to win with the lowest popular vote total in history was the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot.
As President George H.W. Bush left office he pardoned the yet-to-be-tried, 72-year-old Weinberger. President-elect Clinton’s response was to say, “…by any action that sends a signal that, if you work for the government, you’re above the law, or that not telling the truth to Congress under oath is somehow less serious than not telling the truth to some other body under oath.” Ironically, Bill Clinton was Impeached for not telling Congress the truth and was found guilty of perjury in a civil law suit that got him disbarred from practicing law in Arkansas.
Just five days before the end of the Bush-Gore contest, the Democrats revealed that George W. Bush had gotten a DUI ticket back in 1976. Many political scientists, to include Bush political adviser, Karl Rove, claim this last-minute revelation caused the Christian Right to stay home and erased the five-point lead Bush had going into what became one of the closest and bitterly contested presidential elections in history.
The irony here is that George W. Bush had not touched a drop of alcohol in years. Shortly after they were married, Laura Bush told her husband, “You have to make a choice between Jim Beam and me.” He chose Laura, and George W. Bush hasn’t touched alcohol ever since. But there wasn’t time to get that message out to the Christian Right and many of them stayed home.
In the waning days of the current race, the Democrats have floated two October Surprises: Trying to blame Bush for the shortage of Flu vaccine and by saying a huge cache of Saddam’s explosives were stolen under the very eyes of Coalition forces and the new Iraqi government.
The Flu Vaccine Surprise fizzled when historians recalled that it was Hillary Clinton’s massive child vaccination program that depressed the price of vaccine so low that it drove most American producers out of business and that it was American trial lawyer, John Edwards, who filed the main lawsuit that drove American flu vaccine producers off-shore and out of the reach of ambulance chasers like Edwards.
The stolen explosives surprise should fizzle because satellite photography shows big Iraqi truck convoys leaving the ammo dump in question prior to the arrival of U.S. forces. Moreover, intelligence sources say Russian Special Forces directed the munitions evacuations into Syria. Lastly, the GIs who reached the ammo dump said it was empty by the time they got there.
So, you see, facts do not matter with October Surprises. Timing is everything.
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist, a featured commentator for USA Today and self-described “recovering lawyer and philosopher,” is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy – two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
©2004. William Hamilton.