“Bandage-gate”: A Rove-Type Escapade
The Republican Party convention’s first mini-controversy erupted late Monday when the media discovered delegates proudly sporting purple-heart band-aids carrying the message “It was just a self-inflicted scratch, but you see I got a Purple Heart for it.” Obviously aimed at mocking Senator John Kerry’s military record -- as a Navy lieutenant during the Vietnam War he won three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star -- the delegates seemed to be enjoying the glow of instant media attention. Donna Cain, a delegate from Oregon who was wearing one of the purple-heart band-aids, told CNN’s Candy Crowley that by wearing the purple-heart bandages she wasn’t in “any way defaming [the troops in Iraq], because I know people who have received purple hearts and I know that they're not boasting about their war record, they're proud of their serving their country.”
Orchestrated by Virginia delegate Morton Blackwell, “bandage-gate,” unlike the protracted campaign against Kerry by the Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth, was nipped in the bud by Republican Party National Chairman Ed Gillespie, who told Blackwell to cease and desist.
Angry Democrats quickly responded: Rep. Charles Rangel, a military veteran, said: “This symbol is a very moving one. In many of the homes of the survivors that's all they have to remember their loved ones. Some survivors can't see and some can't walk. All they ask is a little dignity.''
While the Bush-Cheney campaign denies having anything to do with the publicity stunt, they've had a lot to do with Morton Blackwell. The politically savvy activist, who never served in the military, is a well-known longtime GOP operative. Was the purple-heart giveaway merely a prank dreamed up and carried out by a lone band-aider armed with 250 bandages, or was the stunt a symbolic way of grabbing another media opportunity to sling charges that Kerry cannot be trusted with national security issues?
Blackwell is not simply just another delegate from Virginia; he’s a veteran right-winger who heads up the Arlington, Va.-based Leadership Institute, a group he founded in 1979 to “prepare conservatives for success in politics, government and the news media,” according to its web site.
Blackwell also has historic ties to Karl Rove, aka, “Bush’s Brain.” A May 12, 2003 New Yorker magazine piece by Nicholas Lemann reported that Blackwell, a former national executive director of the College Republicans who had trained the teen-age Karl Rove to be a “field organizer,” received a call “Ten days after the election... picked up the phone and heard that familiar booming voice on the other end of the line: ‘Morton, how does it feel to have advocated something for decades and have it come true?’ What Blackwell had been advocating for decades... was that people in politics should pay less attention to consultants, television advertising, polls, and ‘message,’ and more attention to the old-fashioned side of the business: registering voters, organizing volunteers, making face-to face contact during the last days of a campaign, and getting people to the polls on Election Day.”
According to the New Yorker, Rove soon “launched a project called the 72-Hour Task Force, which conducted scientific experiments in grassroots political organizing during the three days before Election Day in five geographically scattered races in 2001."
For more than forty years, Blackwell has been at the heart of the conservative movement: He was the youngest Barry Goldwater delegate at the Republican National Convention in 1964; he has been the executive director of the highly secretive Council for National Policy; he served on the White House Staff as Special Assistant to President Reagan for Public Liaison; he, along with the Free Congress Foundation’s Paul Weyrich, founded the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority; he was the founder and chairman of the Conservative Leadership PAC; and he was the former editor of The NewRight Report and a former contributing editor to Conservative Digest.
In a January 2002 speech entitled “Advice to a Just-Elected Conservative Friend,” Blackwell offered advice on dealing both with one’s constituents and the “liberal” media:
"Your constituency is the voters, especially the coalition which elected you. You can't count on the news media to communicate your message to your constituency. You must develop ways to communicate with your coalition which avoids the filter of the media. Focus on your base. Write to them. Meet with them. Honor them. Show yourself to be proud of them. Support their activities. Show up at their events. Help other politicians and activists who share their priorities. People expect politicians to be selfish, so they especially love politicians whose actions show them to be unselfish. Liberals in the media failed to defeat you. Now they will use carrots and sticks to tempt and to intimidate you. They will define any betrayal of your coalition as a sign of "growth." Don't fall for that nonsense. The only way you can get the liberal media on your side is always to betray your supporters, which you know would be political suicide. Media people on the left operate on a double standard. They can forgive a liberal politician almost anything. They hold conservatives to an absolute standard."
The Leadership Institute is no seat-of-its-pants operation: The staff of 54 operates the organization on a more than $8 million yearly budget, according to a People for the American Way report. The Institute’s F.M. Kirby National Training Center has 18 educational programs including: Campaign Leadership, Candidate Development, Capitol Hill staff, Capitol Hill writing, Grassroots organizing, Internet leadership, Public Relations, Public Speaking, Student Publications, Youth Leadership, and Broadcast Journalism.
The organization claims that over the years it has trained more than 40,000 students, including, Time magazine recently reported, “nearly 200 who went on to become state legislators and more than 300 who wound up as staff members on Capitol Hill.” Last year the institute graduated more than 3,562 students. (See Tara McKay’s report, “Hoosier Review staff attend conference, prepare for paper edition” for a glimpse into the Institute’s program and methodology.)
Although the convention just started, Blackwell has already been busy: On August 31, the right wing web site NewsMax.com reported that Blackwell claimed filmmaker Michael Moore, the direct of the humongously successful Fahrenheit 9/11, who is writing a daily column about the convention for USA Today, treated Republican convention-goers with disrespect. According to NewsMax.com, here's what Blackwell observed:
"In this hallway here [just outside the convention arena] roughly a half-hour before [McCain referred to Moore as a 'disingenuous filmmaker'], a conservative lady from a Midwestern state, whom I happen to know, went up to him [Moore] as he was walking and said something like 'May God save you' -- in essence, in a very nice Christian way, calling on him to mend his ways.
"Moore's response was 'F--- you.' These were people who were guarding him [who accompanied him out of Madison Square Garden].
"They were afraid that somehow these Republican ladies and gentlemen would become a menace too him, which was rather preposterous."
Blackwell may be trying to embarrass Moore and get USA Today to drop his daily reports from the convention. The newspaper fired right wing columnist Ann Coulter, who was signed on to report from the Democratic Party convention in Boston last month, after her first column was deemed unacceptable by the editors.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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