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Greenfield: A break from your regularly scheduled scandal

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- So, one of the most secretive and repressive nations on Earth has tested a nuclear device: the "real" question, obviously, is not what this means for the peace of the world, but whether it pushes the Mark Foley scandal to the political sidelines. So let's ask: When does an unexpected news event change the subject?

This actually isn't the first time an Asian Communist nation has joined the nuclear club at election time: that happened in 1964, when China did it. And it happened just as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was ousted in a coup. But because President Johnson was already headed for a landslide victory, it didn't matter much.

But it mattered a lot four years later, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey was trying to bring anti-war Democrats to his side in his uphill fight against Richard Nixon. Just days before the election, President Johnson announced he was halting the bombing of the North. It helped Humphrey, but not enough -- he lost by about half a percentage point to Nixon.

When Nixon ran for re-election, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger announced a breakthrough in peace talks with the North -- "peace is at hand" he proclaimed. But that year, Nixon probably didn't need any help in gaining a historic landslide win over George McGovern.

1980 may be one of the most important lessons about "changing the subject" or not. It's actually where the "October surprise" idea was born -- as Republicans warned that President Carter would try to pull off a political coup -- by getting the Iranian hostages released just before election time. Rumors of just such a deal turned out to be false. (In fact, Democrats for years after believed that the Reagan campaign had conspired with Iran to keep the hostages captive.)

But the real political death blow to Carter was no surprise at all: the day before the election, every network and newspaper reminded voters of the one-year anniversary of the hostages' seizure. Carter lost in a landslide.

In 1993, President Bush -- the first one -- got a very unwelcome surprise on election eve when special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh announced a new indictment involving the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980's that refocused attention on then-Vice President Bush's role in that matter. It was exactly what Bush did not need in his unsuccessful re-election fight against Bill Clinton.

And in 2000, this was exactly what the younger Bush didn't need -- a story that broke in the campaign's last week that he'd been arrested for drunk driving as a young man; Bush adviser Karl Rove argued later that the story depressed turnout among social conservatives, costing Bush the popular vote -- and almost the White House.

And in 2004, the release of a new video by Osama Bin Laden put the whole national security-terrorism issue front and center just days before the election -- the issue that President Bush was making the centerpiece of his narrowly successful re-election campaign.

So does the North Korea test trump the Foley scandal? Here's one point to keep in mind: there's a month to go before Election Day. The North Korea story may well fade by then (not that it won't resurface in months or years to come); the Foley follies are likely to stay front and center for weeks.


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Will voters start talking about the North Korea bomb test -- instead of Foley's follies?

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