When Debate ‘Zingers’ Backfired

Exclusive: Zingers are often the most memorable moments in presidential debates, but they are rarely spontaneous. In 1992, aides to President George H.W. Bush prepped him with insults intended to question Bill Clinton’s patriotism but the script went awry, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Mitt Romney’s debate team reportedly has armed the Republican presidential nominee with a list of “zingers” designed to deflate President Barack Obama in Wednesday’s first presidential debate, a tactic employed by other presidential candidates but one that hasn’t always worked.

For instance, while researching in the National Archives how President George H.W. Bush tried to exploit doubts about the patriotism of his 1992 opponent Bill Clinton, I found a list of “zingers” that had been prepared for Bush to use in their Oct. 11, 1992, debate.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton debating with President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

The senior George Bush hoped to raise questions about Clinton’s youthful opposition to the Vietnam War, a student trip he took to Moscow while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and rumors that he had tried to renounce his U.S. citizenship. So, the day before the debate, Bush’s staff handed the President what he called “zingy” comments.

“It’s hard to visit foreign countries with a torn-up passport,” read one of the scripted lines. Another zinger read: “Contrary to what the Governor’s been saying, most young men his age did not try to duck the draft. A few did go to Canada. A couple went to England. Only one I know went to Russia.”

Bush also hoped to use the trip to Moscow as a double whammy, highlighting both Clinton’s supposed lack of patriotism and his shortage of foreign policy experience. “The Governor does have some foreign experience,” read one zinger. “We know he’s been to Moscow.”

Some of the “zingers” were both defensive and offensive. One was designed to counter a possible Clinton criticism about Bush’s official Texas residence at a Houston hotel. If Clinton raised that point, Bush was primed to hit back with another Russian reference: “Where is your legal residence, Little Rock or Leningrad.”

Another “zinger” highlighted a rumor that Clinton had considered seeking Swedish citizenship. The one-liner read: “That was the year he switched from waffles to meatballs,” apparently a reference to Swedish meatballs.

Other “zingers” zapped Clinton about his time in Great Britain on a Rhodes scholarship and his efforts to avoid the military draft. “During the war, Waldo played, ‘Where’s Bill?’,” President Bush was supposed to say.

A Counterattack

However, the “zinger” ambush was spoiled when Bush clumsily tried to impugn Clinton’s patriotism and encountered a strong counterattack. Early in the debate, Bush raised the loyalty issue in response to a question about character, but the incumbent’s message was lost in a cascade of inarticulate sentence fragments.

“I said something the other day where I was accused of being like Joe McCarthy because I question — I’ll put it this way, I think it’s wrong to demonstrate against your own country or organize demonstrations against your own country in foreign soil,” Bush said.

“I just think it’s wrong. I — that — maybe — they say, ‘well, it was a youthful indiscretion.’ I was 19 or 20 flying off an aircraft carrier and that shaped me to be commander in chief of the armed forces, and — I’m sorry but demonstrating — it’s not a question of patriotism, it’s a question of character and judgment.”

Clinton responded by confronting Bush directly. “You have questioned my patriotism,” the Democrat shot back. Clinton then unloaded his own zinger:

“When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people’s patriotism, he was wrong. He was wrong, and a senator from Connecticut stood up to him, named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism.”

Many observers rated Clinton’s negative comparison of Bush to his father as Bush’s worst moment in the debate. An unsettled Bush never regained the initiative. Thus, Bush’s “zingers” at least the four pages that I obtained from the National Archives went unused. So, the public never got to hear such clever comments as:

Bush in a direct question to Clinton: “Ever wake up in the middle of the night with Oxford flashbacks?”

Another: “At Oxford, the governor experienced pre-traumatic stress syndrome.”

Or: “Put it this way — Vietnam Vets don’t collect Bill Clinton trading cards.”

Read another: “I don’t know what you need more — a compass or a conscience.”

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’

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’s 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 41st 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.

“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

The so-called Passportgate controversy began in mid-September 1992, with Clinton leading in the polls and Bush’s brain trust pondering ways to exploit the Clinton “character” issue.

White House chief of staff James Baker heard about press inquiries seeking government records on Clinton’s anti-Vietnam War activities. Reporters from several news organizations, including the right-wing Washington Times, had filed Freedom of Information Act requests.

At the same time, rumors were floating around conservative circles that Clinton might have written a letter renouncing his citizenship during the war. Recognizing the damage these rumors could cause Clinton, Baker asked other administration officials about the status of the FOIA requests. Eventually, the high-level White House interest was communicated to State Department official Elizabeth Tamposi.

Tamposi, a Bush political appointee, saw the White House interest as a green light to speed up the search and override concerns that expedited action could violate Clinton’s privacy rights.

On the night of Sept. 30, 1992, Tamposi dispatched three aides to the federal records center in Suitland, Maryland. They searched Clinton’s passport file as well as his mother’s, presumably because they thought it might contain some references to Clinton.

The State Department team did not find the rumored renunciation letter. But Bush aides did not give up the hunt. Tamposi contacted the U.S. embassies in London and Oslo and ordered searches of consular files in those countries. Only the London embassy complied and found nothing.

With little to show for their efforts, Bush officials next constructed a suspicion that a Clinton sympathizer might have tampered with the passport file and removed the supposed renunciation letter. They cited staple holes and a slight tear in the corner of Clinton’s passport application to justify a criminal referral to the FBI.

The existence of the referral was then leaked to Newsweek, which published a story on Oct. 4, 1992, with precisely the disloyalty spin that the Bush campaign had wanted. The Bush campaign then seized on the Newsweek story as an opportunity to raise more suspicions about what Clinton was up to when he made a student trip to Moscow over New Year’s Day 1970.

A KGB Smear

With these negative themes on the table, Clinton’s loyalty became a hot campaign issue and Clinton’s advisers nervously watched their poll numbers soften. The Bush camp upped the ante more, putting out new suspicions that Clinton might have been a KGB “agent of influence.” The Washington Times headlined that allegation on Oct. 5, a story that attracted President Bush’s personal interest.

“Now there are stories that Clinton may have gone to Moscow as [a] guest of the KGB, but who knows how that will play,” Bush wrote in his diary on Oct. 5, 1992. The entry was typical of Bush’s frequent complaint that the news media sympathized with Clinton’s anti-war history and didn’t hold the Democrat to account for his actions.

Yet sensing that the loyalty theme was undermining Clinton with the American people, Bush added his own fuel to the fire on CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Oct. 7. Bush suggested anew that there was something sinister about a possible Clinton friend tampering with Clinton’s passport file.

“Why in the world would anybody want to tamper with his files, you know, to support the man?” Bush wondered before a national TV audience. “I mean, I don’t understand that. What would exonerate him — put it that way — in the files?”

The next day, in his diary, Bush ruminated suspiciously about Clinton’s Moscow trip: “All kinds of rumors as to who his hosts were in Russia, something he can’t remember anything about.”

But the GOP attack on Clinton’s loyalty prompted some Democrats to liken Bush to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who built a political career on challenging people’s loyalties without offering proof.

On Oct. 9, the FBI complicated Bush’s strategy further by rejecting the criminal referral. The FBI concluded that there was no evidence that anyone had removed anything from Clinton’s passport file.

At that point, Bush backpedaled. “If he’s told all there is to tell on Moscow, fine,” Bush said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “I’m not suggesting that there’s anything unpatriotic about that. A lot of people went to Moscow, and so that’s the end of that one.”

But the list of zingers, prepared on Oct. 10, indicated that Bush was not so ready to let the patriotism theme go. His problem, however, was that when he tried to raise the loyalty issue through a question on character, he stumbled badly and was then thrown way off balance by Clinton’s counter-blow.

Through the campaign’s final weeks, Bush shelved the Moscow zingers. But he did resort to other clumsy insults against Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore.

“Listen to Gov. Clinton and Ozone Man,” Bush shouted at one campaign stop. “This guy [Gore] is so far off in the environmental extreme, we’ll be up to our neck in owls and out of work for every American. This guy’s crazy. He is way out, far out. Far out, man.”

Bush added, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos.”

Although stung by the passport-ploy failure, the Bush campaign kept quietly pursuing derogatory information about Clinton’s student travels. In the days after the debate, phone records revealed a flurry of calls from Bush’s campaign headquarters to Czechoslovakia. There were also fax transmissions on Oct. 14 and 15.

On Oct. 16, what appears to have been a return call was placed from the U.S. Embassy in Prague to the office of Bush’s ad man Sig Rogich, who was handling anti-Clinton themes for the campaign.

Following these exchanges, stories about Clinton’s 1970 Prague trip began popping up in Czech newspapers. On Oct. 24, 1992, three Czech newspapers ran similar stories about Clinton’s Czech hosts. The Cesky Denik story had an especially nasty headline: “Bill Was With Communists.”

The Czech articles soon blew back to the United States. Reuters distributed a summary and, over three consecutive days, The Washington Times ran articles about Clinton’s Czech trip. The Clinton campaign responded that Clinton had entered Czechoslovakia under normal procedures for a student and stayed with the family of his Oxford friend.

Despite these last-minute efforts to revive the Clinton’s loyalty issue, the Democrat held on to defeat Bush in a three-way race involving populist billionaire Ross Perot.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

11 comments for “When Debate ‘Zingers’ Backfired

  1. meh
    October 9, 2012 at 23:26

    and you all still talk as if these debates, or actually voting, actually mans anything.

    its all part of the show to make you think you have a choice, it doesnt matter who wins the debates, or the elections.. the losers are always the same.

  2. clarence swinney
    October 3, 2012 at 15:59

    repeat but so important

    1945 to 1980 we taxed wealth and estates to pay off WWII debt.
    Now, we need the same to Pay off the “Republican” debt.
    We have an income of 14,000B.
    2013 budget calls for 2900B in revenue and 900B in deficit.
    A shame that a nation with 14,000B income borrows 900B on a 3800B Budget.
    We rank #4 on Inequality in OECD nations and above only Chile and Mexico as Least taxed.
    In Federal-State and Local taxes we tax 27% of our GDP..
    Since 1980, our tax rates have been cut to favor the wealthy.
    Top 50% take 86% of individual income and pay a 12.5% Tax Rate
    70,000,000 take 14% and all pay the full payroll tax.
    The top 400 are billionaires. Some pay no payroll tax.
    Most pay less than 1%.

    We MUST go back to taxing Estates and Wealth at higher rates.
    One family has more wealth than 90% of families.

    We can balance our budget and pay off our debt which will give the middle class a larger share of our wealth and an improved standard of living. clarence swinney

  3. gregorylkruse
    October 3, 2012 at 11:15

    I add my thanks for another great history lesson, and it was nice to see you, Mr. Parry, on therealnews.com.

  4. Nelson Dalton
    October 3, 2012 at 05:12

    As usual > DumbAss-borat < at his best – showing again his very
    retarded and uncontrollable fucked up mental state – you psychopath.
    Take your medicine and call your Jewish-Neighborhood-psycho clinic.

  5. Jym Allyn
    October 2, 2012 at 14:01

    Romney has said that Obama’s philosophical and political base is the 47% of the population that “doesn’t pay taxes” and thereby lives off of the largess of the Federal Government. Romney’s philosophical and political base is actually the 46% of our population that doesn’t believe in Evolution. Regardless of Romney’s comments on whether or not Obama is, or is not, a “Socialist” (as if that was something evil), a statement from Romney that Obama is not a Muslim and was born in America will totally drive the anti-Obama fundamentalists crazy and have them retreat to their caves rather than vote for “Romney The Heretic” (as opposed to Romney the hypocrite) on November 6.

    What I am expecting to be the critical factor in the upcoming debates is if one of the moderators asks Romney for definitive answers (Yes/No) to the mantra of the Tea Party and other anti-Obama Fundamentalisms. This will be the “check-mate” moment for the Romney/GOP campaign in which truth will totally drive their anti-Obama supporters to become “certified crazy.”

    The definitive anti-Obama mantra is that:
    1. Obama is a Muslim (in a county where are values are based upon Christianity, not Islam)
    2. Obama is not American born (and was born in Kenya so is not entitled to be the President)
    3. Obama is a Socialist (and thereby “anti-American)

    There is no way President Obama can defend himself from these spacious (or rather, idiotic) claims because he has no credibility as to his self-defense.

    However, if one of the moderators has the nerve (or is smart enough) to ask Mitt Romney for a definitive Yes/No answer to these questions about President Obama, Romney will be excoriated and lose regardless of what answer Romney gives.

    If Romney answers Yes to any of these questions he will be exposed as an idiot for believing such stupid false-hoods.

    If Romney answers No to any of these questions he will thoroughly piss off the anti-Obama “True Believers” (re: Erik Hoffer’s book of the same name) and have these believers stay home rather than vote for this Mormon hypocrite. (Most of these flat-earth Creationist Evangelicals also don’t believe that Mormons, or Catholics, are “Real Christians.”)

    This should be fun.

  6. Philip Zozzaro
    October 2, 2012 at 11:42

    Great Article, Mr. Parry.

    I had watched the documentary “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story” last year and remember Terry McAuliffe saying that Bill Clinton was already on Atwater’s mind before the election. If Atwater hadn’t died in 1991, I think the dirty tricks would’ve been even more numerous. I used to think highly of George H.W. Bush, before I was old enough to know better. His involvement in the October Surprise mess & Iran-Contra imbroglio does a lot to blot his reputation. I am not a fan of Bill Clinton whatsoever (think he got away with a lot) but it doesn’t surprise me that Bush would stoop to the most low level to attack.

  7. DorothyPerkins
    October 2, 2012 at 11:03

    This just proves what I always thought: The Republicans will do and say anything to get elected and to proceed with their anti-majority agenda. They were ‘after’ Clinton from the beginning but the only thing they ever found was marital infidelity, a thing that should have stayed between the President and his spouse.

  8. Charles Norrie
    October 2, 2012 at 09:32

    I’m just surprised at the crudity of the Republican rhetoric. One planin damn unsubstantiated crude comment after another. And Bush did not write them himself, but got a team of scriptwriters to do it. Certainly for labour in the UK there is a traditional taht the candidate writes his own speeches himself. Take the case of Neil Kinnock about his childhood in Wales. A US presidential hopeful had the temerity to plagairuse it. It was found out and he disappeared without trace. WS Churchill always wrote his own speeches and whatever you think of him, and he was a man with warts, they are fine pieces of writing in any language.

    • oudiva
      October 2, 2012 at 12:23

      It hasn’t always been like this in the USA; Lincoln wrote his own speeches. I hope he wasn’t the last, but I don’t know that much about subsequent Presidents.

  9. Mike Schell
    October 2, 2012 at 09:29

    Thanks very much for a poignant reminder of what passes for campaign strategy and tactics in the Bush world — elder and younger. The significance today is that the same crowd of masterminds, theoreticians and wise men advisors (e.g., Dan Senor) are providing the intellectual (?) content and tactical design to the Romney campaign. Whatever anyone has to say about the recovery progress over the past 3-1/2 years (and I would give the President high marks), no one can deny that the Romney recipe is nothing but a return to the voodoo economics that would have caused a depression but for Obama’s emergency application of remedial measures in 2009 and 2010. In 2012 “Zingers” translates into Mal MOTS, where MOTS is “More Of The Same” as what George W. Bush brought down on our heads.

  10. October 2, 2012 at 09:04

    Thanks Bob for reminding us how sick the campaigns of 1992 were for Clinton. He took a lot of punishment and alluded to such in his DNC speech a month ago, the country boy from AR vs the preppy liars of the Bush years, two wars, Panama/Iraq, then W. Still mopping up.

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