How did Drudge know what would be on Good Morning America the following morning? And how was it that the New York Times, also that Monday, would have a story based on the same 1971 video? (CNN's Candy Crowley, a believer in the divine, reported that the New York Times and ABC "found" the tape. But the Washington Post stated that "copies of the tape were provided to [the] two news organizations by the Republican National Committee, according to several media staff members familiar with the situation.")
In the fourth paragraph of its Monday story, the Times antiseptically noted that it "obtained a videotape of the interview late last week." The only indication of where the tape might have come from was in the comment "Republicans, nervous about questions regarding President Bush's Air National Guard service, have raised the issue to revive accusations by some veterans that the discarding of medals dishonored those who served and died in the war. At the same time, the Republicans have said that Mr. Kerry's explanation of what happened at the ceremony is an example of his proclivity to fall on both sides of every issue."
As for the Good Morning America airing of the tape, the stakes were raised by Hughes's remarks and the anticipation fostered among the Chattering Class by Drudge's hype. The stakes were raised even higher when Kerry agreed to appear live to proffer a response. The interview with ABC News's Charles Gibson was contentious, and after the segment ended, a heated Kerry, still wearing his microphone, bellowed, "God, they're doing the work of the Republican National Committee."
Kerry's aides posited that there was a coordinated effort by Hughes and the RNC, whose communications director, Jim Dyke, told the Washington Post, "It is interesting that John Kerry, confronted with his own words, blamed the RNC. Where the tape came from, the place to start would be the National Archives."
There are several Trade Secrets of the Freak Show represented by this episode. First, getting Drudge to build suspense for an exclusive is very helpful. Second, if you have a vintage video of the opposing candidate saying something controversial, exercise the patience to hold it until the candidate's contemporary words contradict the video. Third, if your opposition research not only forces your opponent to lose control of his public image but also makes him lose his temper on network television, give yourself bonus points.
For days, talk radio, cable TV, and the blogs were consumed with the tape, Kerry's emotional response, and the question of his veracity. Politics has always been an unpredictable business -- more so, without question, in the Age of the Freak Show. And yet this strategy worked as if plotted play by play on a locker room chalkboard. By taking advantage of the new media environment, Kerry's foes painted him as an angry, unpatriotic liar. And the effective efforts to damage Kerry using his Vietnam-era past barely had begun.