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Vetting is harder than it looks Add to ...

Every campaign cycle produces a new "backroom process du jour."

From the New Democrat asking for teens to paint his nude body, to the Liberal who thought the solution to the Oka crisis was a massacre, to the New Democrat who filmed himself taking hallucinogens and driving, to the Conservative who blogged that a concealed handgun law would have prevented the Greyhound beheading, this time it is clearly candidate vetting.

It's the same south of the border.

Sarah Palin is probably the second greatest modern American vetting disaster. A high-profile New York Times expose confirmed that the team assigned to consider her background arrived in Alaska only ONE DAY before her candidacy was announced.

Since then revelations came hot and heavy.

The pregnant daughter.

The bridge to nowhere flip-flop.

The abuse of power investigation.

Her mayoral seat of Wasilla is the crystal meth capital of Alaska.

While these disclosures undermined the image of Palin the McCain camp was hoping to construct, there was collateral damage to McCain for failing to properly consider the qualifications and background of his Vice-Presidential candidate.

The only more catastrophic vetting disaster was the Eagleton Affair.

In 1972, George McGovern won a hard fought convention for the Democratic nomination, and was not expected to beat Richard Nixon. Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey both rejected the offer of the Vice-Presidental slot in advance of the convention. Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Abe Ribicoff and Gaylord Nelson also turned him down. In desperation, McGovern turned to Senator Tom Eagleton of Missori, who was openly campaigning for the job.

Eagleton's vetting consisted of a short conversation with McGovern's campaign director, Frank Mankiewicz, who simply asked if there was anything in the Senator's background that could be considered troublesome. Eagleton knowingly lied.

Days later, news leaked out of Missori that Eagleton had received shock-treatment for depression, was currently taking the powerful anti-psychotic medication Thorazine and there were concerns about his mental health. McGovern initially stood behind his candidate, in part because the severity of Eaglton's condition leaked out in drips, and in part because his own daughter suffered from severe depression and he worried about the impact on her of firing his VP candidate for the same illness.

The resulting fiasco destroyed McGovern's remaining chance at the Presidency and allowed Nixon to be reelected in one of the greatest landslides in American history.

The funny thing is... vetting is in everyone's best interest, especially the subject.

One of my roles in the past was to vet candidates.

Its uncomfortable to sit in someone's living room and ask them if they ever had a drinking problem or mail-ordered exotic pornography from Denmark.

I can only imagine it is far more uncomfortable being asked.

But that myriad of questions is there to jog any potential problem that might need managing.

Only a truly egregious problem need disqualify a candidate for office.

Most past behaviours are explainable with context.

And knowing them, allows the campaign to ensure the narrative that is constructed for the candidate does not run counter to their own history.

For instance, I once interviewed Bob Hunter when he was going to run for the Liberals in a by-election in Beaches-East York.

We talked about every potential challenge under the sun.

Amongst lots of other things (he did after all live in Vancouver in the 1960s), Bob volunteered that he had once written a book with some pretty saucy passages but that it was gonzo journalism.

When the ensuing dust up hit, our campaign was ready and united to rally behind the candidate.

While Bob lost, he won admirers for the fiesty way he handled the challenge and it redoubled the campaign's efforts to prepare our candidates for the worst our opponents could throw at them in the general election.

In the 2003 general election, the Progressive Conservatives attacked Liberal candidate Dr. Kuldip Kular for a 1993 charge of inappropriately prescribing narcotics.

Rather than abandoning the candidate, the Liberals were prepared to counter-attack. The PC attack backfired when the Liberals demonstrated the "narcotic" was Tylenol-3, was prescribed at the request of a patient who did not actually need it, and was judged to minor to warrant fine or suspension.

Kular won the election, and remains a Member of Provincial Parliament today.

The truth is good vetting is about truth, not internet searches or private eyes.

A good campaign will earn the trust of their candidates, and the candidates will embrace the mutual protection that comes with honesty.

 

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