Ever since 1980, the idea of an "October Surprise" has fascinated political junkies everywhere. The term originated with allegations that the Reagan campaign made a secret arrangement with Iranian hostage-takers in order to discredit President Carter. As a tactic, it has provided a successful model for election sabotage, and few have forgotten its efficacy. On the eve of another election, Brooke reflects on the long October wait for the other shoe to drop.
BOB GARFIELD: Surprises! We love 'em. Except, that is, during election years in months beginning with "O." Then we get a little suspicious. The phrase "October Surprise" was first applied to a rumored intervention, of sorts, during the Carter administration. Hostages were being held in Iran, but toward the end of Carter's term, there were increasing signs that they would soon be freed, perhaps in October 1980 -- of an election year. Barbara Honegger, a researcher and policy analyst with the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign, alleged that Reagan operative William Casey made a deal late that summer with an Iranian cleric to delay the release. The charge was never proved. The hostages were released, on Reagan's inauguration day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thus, the first October surprise was an alleged effort to foil an October boost for an incumbent. Since then, of course, it's been applied retroactively, for instance, to candidate Richard Nixon's successful attempt to hobble a Vietnam peace agreement taking shape in the last days of the Johnson administration. Nixon sent word to Saigon that South Vietnam would get a better deal under Nixon than Hubert Humphrey, and Johnson's peace initiative fizzled. Surprise! No matter, Nixon told voters that he had a secret peace plan of his own. Surprise, again. Suspicions about October surprises, intentional or accidental, by the incumbent or the challenger date back at least 50 years, when Dwight Eisenhower got a boost from the Suez Crisis, right up to the last campaign when the Democrats were charged with unearthing George W. Bush's decades-old drunk driving conviction on the eve of the vote.
BOB GARFIELD: Fast forward to 2004. Recently, on ABC Radio, the president's political mastermind, Karl Rove, told conservative talk show host Sean Hannity that, quote, "We've got a couple of surprises that we intend to spring." So come on -- we're midway through October already. What's it gonna be? Political junkies are trawling media's dark alleys for a fix. The internet provides a slate of tantalizing possibilities, courtesy of such sites as OctoberSurprise.net and OsamabinLotto.org, which also offers the opportunity to wager. Everyone's number one pick is, of course, the capture of Osama bin Laden. In second, third, fourth and fifth place, America attacks Iran, America attacks North Korea, the election is postponed due to red alert, and last, but not least, Dick Cheney is dumped from the ticket.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Although our favorite option comes further down the list: Weapons of Mass Destruction Found in Iraq. What could be better than that? I mean we believed it before. So did Congress. The administration had access to all sorts of conflicting information at the time, but it really wanted to believe it, and we know that's what matters. The problem for the politicians, of course, is that the public is growing ever more skeptical of announcements from the podium or the campaign trail. They've heard it all before. Maybe the surprise of October 2004 is that you really can't surprise the American electorate any more. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anne Kosseff and Andy Lanset. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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