Casino lobbyist Jack Abramoff knew what he was getting when he hired his pal Ralph Reed as a political consultant. He knew Reed's tactics; he knew how Reed worked.
"Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them," Abramoff's chief partner in crime, Michael Scanlon, described Reed's approach in a private e-mail to a client. "The wackos get their information [from] the Christian right, Christian radio, e-mail, the Internet and telephone trees."
While Reed surely cringes at the crass description of his supporters as wackos, he can't refute the basic accuracy of Scanlon's e-mail. Not when Reed is using that very same approach in his effort to win the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.
Unlike most candidates, Reed does not seek and in fact avoids mainstream media coverage. His approach is to communicate with his voters through less obvious channels — church meetings, e-mail lists, Christian media, etc. — where his unique version of the truth can't be challenged.
Reed further inoculates himself against the facts by warning his target audience not to believe anything the mainstream media say about him, playing to their belief that the media are biased against Christians and Republicans.
That way, when reporters cite e-mails — some written by Reed himself — that leave no question that Reed knew the millions he was paid were coming from casinos, it isn't perceived as evidence against Reed; it is perceived as proof of the conspiracy against him.
It's a white man's version of what you might call "the Bill Campbell defense," named after the former Atlanta mayor trying to defend himself against corruption charges by portraying himself as the victim of racism. In both cases the tactic is identical: Rather than try to refute the facts — because the facts are pretty overwhelming — you try to skate by casting yourself as the victim of your group's enemies.
Republican leaders in the Georgia Legislature have adopted that approach to fend off criticism for recent ethical lapses, such as taking flights on corporate jets, accepting expensive tickets from lobbyists seeking their favors, and taking $20,000 checks from special interests. None of those actions can be defended on their merits, so legislators are claiming that they're the victims of a liberal media that ignored similar behavior when Democrats held power.
That's not how I remember things. I remember House Speaker Tom Murphy and his successor, Terry Coleman, coming under harsh criticism for abusing their authority, playing fast and loose with the rules, and squashing ethics-reform efforts.
Just to make sure, I called Coleman and asked whether he thought the press had been easy on him and his party for their ethical lapses.
Coleman laughed out loud at the question, then responded with a slightly profane description of media coverage that he quickly asked be taken off the record.
I agreed — I couldn't have published it anyway — and let him offer a less colorful version.
"You all reported everything," Coleman said. "All you got to do is look in the archives. I feel you all were probably too tough on me."
The archives confirm that, among other things, Murphy had been the target of editorial criticism for taking a lobbyist-funded jaunt to a posh Florida resort, for using the power of his office to intimidate a state child-protection worker just doing her job, for using taxpayer money as a slush fund and for blocking ethics reform bills, which this newspaper condemned as "an act of selfishness and contempt for public opinion."
In searching the archives, I also ran across a poignant statement from the late Paul Coverdell, at the time the state Senate's minority leader.
"We have singled out ethics and good government as one of our themes for party building," Coverdell said, demanding more openness in how the General Assembly operates.
Coverdell, of course, went on to become a U.S. senator and is now regarded by many in the GOP as a pioneer in their party's rise in Georgia.
But after just a short time in power, Georgia Republicans who followed in Coverdell's footsteps are trying to justify their misbehavior by playing the victim and by saying the Democrats did it too.
It's sad, really.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor for the Journal Constitution. His column appears Thursdays and Mondays.
© 2006 Atlanta Journal Constitution