The idea of ethical politics seems today to be an oxymoron – a contradiction in terms – sort of like civil war or diet chocolate cake.
Doctors and lawyers have codes of conduct. So do many businesses. But politicians basically operate under one basic rule: Do what you think you can get away with.
But back in the early 1950s, Terry Sanford, then a young Fayetteville attorney, and his associates with the statewide Young Democrats Clubs, drew up a code of ethics that they thought should govern political campaigns.
When Sanford became campaign manager for former Gov. Kerr Scott’s U.S. Senate campaign, he got Scott to adopt the code of ethics, which he did in a speech on Feb. 10, 1954, in Chapel Hill. Sanford would later go on to become a North Carolina governor, U.S. senator, Duke University president and a two-time presidential candidate.
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The backdrop for proposing the code of ethics was that North Carolina had four years earlier experienced one of the roughest political races in its history – the Senate race between Raleigh attorney Willis Smith and incumbent U.S. Sen. Frank Porter Graham. Graham, who had been appointed by Scott, was a former University of North Carolina president and one of the South’s leading liberals. Willis’ campaign against him was filled with race and red-baiting.
Scott, who was the front-runner in the Democratic primary against Sen. Alton Lennon, saw the benefit of a clean campaign. Even though Lennon was the incumbent, Scott was far better known, and Lennon intended to target Scott’s record as governor.
No mud slinging
In his first speech after announcing his candidacy, Scott said “there is no proper place in politics for mudslinging and swapping of rabbit punches. Political fights should be governed at all times by the rules of decent conduct, fair play and good manners.”
Today the Scott/Sanford code of ethics has the quaint feeling of an early chivalric age.
The code says, “A fair and honest presentation of the issues should be more important to every candidate than the winning of public office.”
It then goes on to say that it’s unethical to use falsehoods, half-truths and misleading statements, and that if a charge must be made about an opponent’s character, it should be made directly by the candidate in person.
And then there’s this line: “It shall be deemed unethical to use, or allow to be used, back-street tactics, or gossip, rumor or whispering campaigns which suggest anything detrimental about an opponent.”
Feel free to let out a belly laugh at any time.
Dirty from the start
There is hardly a political TV ad in the current Senate race that would pass this code of ethics.
Political campaigns have been dirty from the beginning of time. There were nasty letter-writing campaigns against Thomas Jefferson, raising questions about whether he was really a Christian and tying him to French radicals. There were also rumors about his relationship with his mixed-race slave Sally Hemings. The Jefferson camp, for its part, accused President John Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Scott himself ran a clean campaign in 1954, mainly letting his opponent’s attacks against him go unanswered. Scott won a close election.
By the way, within days of having made his code of conduct speech, Scott accused his opponent of sending gumshoes to Duke Hospital to riffle through his personal medical records.