Campaign Cleanup

Posted May 31, 2009, at 6:54 p.m.

Nearly 40 years later, details are still emerging about President Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks campaign, funded with wads of cash from a safe at the headquarters of the aptly named “Creep,” the Committee to Re-Elect the President. As the last of the Nixon White House tapes are released and scrutinized, and as the players in that dark drama come clean in their old age, the escapades still have the power to appall.

An impressive body of law, covering everything from fundraising to the text used in campaign advertisements, came out of the Watergate scandal. Some are on their second or third generation of revisions, and are more finely tuned to contemporary campaigns.

The integrity of the election process is of first importance in our democracy. But the plight of Jim Tobin, the Bangor man accused of organizing an effort to jam telephones at a Democratic campaign headquarters in New Hampshire in 2002, may speak more about partisanship than democratic purity.

At this point, only Mr. Tobin knows the depth of his involvement in this unethical campaign tactic. He was convicted in federal court in December 2005 for his part in the phone jamming. Democrats used the phones to urge sympathetic voters to get to the polls. Then in 2007, the 1st Circuit Court overturned the conviction, ruling that the telephone harassment law was not the appropriate statute to apply to the alleged actions. Federal prosecutors appealed, but earlier this month the case was dismissed by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Now, New Hampshire Congress member Paul Hodes, a Democrat, wants the House Judiciary Committee to continue to probe the matter. “New Hampshire’s citizens deserve a full airing of what transpired in 2002,” he said. This “airing” would include, presumably, whether or not Mr. Tobin in-volved the Bush White House in the phone jamming. The representative may believe he will uncover evidence that the scandal “reaches to the highest levels,” to borrow Watergate rhetoric.

As Sigmund Freud said, “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.” And sometimes a dirty trick is just bad judgment.

Congress has been lobbied to hold “truth and reconciliation” hearings about the Bush administration’s Iraq War decisions and other matters. While such confrontations make sense in the abstract, the Obama administration is correct in avoiding them, because they would derail efforts with more potential to remake the way government works.

The way to deal with issues raised by the Tobin saga is to look forward. If the law is unclear on phone jamming, then new statutes must be written. If new abuses emerge with new information technologies, then elected officials must be vigilant and anticipate them with new laws.

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