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Profile: Readers Digest

Readers Digest was a participant or observer in the following events:

Readers Digest reports on the recent coup in Brazil (see April 1, 1964): “Seldom has a major nation come closer to the brink of disaster and yet recovered than did Brazil in its recent triumph over Red subversion. The Communist drive for domination-marked by propaganda, infiltration, terror-was moving in high gear. Total surrender seemed imminent—and then the people said ‘No!’” (Blum 1995)

The Bush presidential re-election campaign, trailing Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, in the polls, decides on a “two-track” campaign strategy. The strategy is crafted by campaign manager Lee Atwater. The “high road” track will be taken by President Bush and the campaign directly, attacking Dukakis’s record on law enforcement and challenging his reputation as having led Massachusetts into a period of economic growth (the so-called “Massachusetts Miracle”). The “low road,” designed by Atwater to appeal to the most crude racial stereotypes (see 1981), is to be taken by ostensibly “independent” voter outreach organizations. Because of a loophole in campaign finance rules, the Bush campaign could work closely with “outside groups” and funnel money from “independent” organizations to the outside groups, while denying any connections with those groups were they to run objectionable or negative political ads. Atwater wants to avoid a potential backlash among voters, who may turn against the campaign because of their antipathy towards “attack politics.” Atwater and his colleagues determine that the outside groups will use “brass knuckle” tactics to attack Dukakis, and because the ads come from these “independent” organizations, the Bush campaign can distance itself from the groups and even criticize them for being too negative. In 1999, will write: “In so doing, Bush’s presidential effort would train a generation of campaign operatives how to run a negative campaign. Its ‘two-track’ approach would become a model of how to exploit campaign finance laws and use outside groups to deliver hard-hitting messages on behalf of the candidate. Over the course of the following decade, this strategy would become commonplace in American elections.” The idea of “outsourcing” attack ads had been popularized by the 1980 Reagan presidential campaign, which used what it called “independent expenditures” to finance “outside” attacks on its Democratic opponent, President Jimmy Carter. In 1988, “independent” conservative groups spend $13.7 million on the Bush campaign, most of which goes towards attacks on Dukakis. In comparison, progressive and liberal groups spend $2.8 million on behalf of Dukakis—an almost five-to-one discrepancy. Most of the outside money is spent on television advertising. InsidePolitics will write, “Increasingly, candidates were discovering, electoral agendas and voter impressions could be dominated through a clever combination of attack ads and favorable news coverage.” (Inside Politics (.org) 1999) The result of Atwater’s “two-track” strategy is the “Willie Horton” ad, which will become infamous both for its bluntly racist appeal and its effectiveness (see September 21 - October 4, 1988). An earlier “independent” ad attacking Dukakis’s environmental record provides something of a template for the Horton ad campaign. The so-called “Boston Harbor” ad, which depicted garbage floating in the body of water, challenged Dukakis’s positive reputation as a pro-environmental candndate. The ad helped bring Dukakis’s “positives” down, a strong plus for Bush, whose record as an oil-company executive and reputation as a powerful political friend to the oil companies hurts him in comparison with Dukakis. In July 1988, Readers Digest, a magazine known for its quietly conservative slant, publishes a profile of Horton titled “Getting Away With Murder.” The Bush campaign reprints the article and distributes it by the tens of thousands around the country. (Simon 10/1/1990; Inside Politics (.org) 1999)

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