Whence “October Surprise”?

How it got its name.

October is almost behind us, and—as several commentators have noted—we seem to have escaped the notorious October Surprise that political candidates and observers often warn about. What is an October Surprise? And how did it come by its name?

The phrase October Surprise generally refers to a last-minute action or revelation designed to sway an election. For example, Democrats had wondered aloud whether Osama Bin Laden might be strategically apprehended this month in order to boost President Bush’s re-election chances. Of course, that requires more than a little conspiratorial thinking (especially since he’s just turned up in a new video broadcast on Al Jazeera). On the other hand, there are still four days until the election.

The term October Surprise first came into wide public use during the 1980 presidential campaign. Some historians attribute it to George H.W. Bush, who was then Ronald Reagan’s running mate. Reagan himself also used it. The Republicans were referring to what they implied was a secret plan in the works by then-President Carter to negotiate the release of American hostages in Iran. The GOP hoped to inoculate the public to any deal by portraying it in advance as a cynical political move. But there was no surprise. The hostages weren’t released until the day Mr. Reagan was inaugurated.

A decade later, a former Carter official charged that, in fact, it was the Reagan campaign that was secretly negotiating with Iran to keep any hostage deal from happening before the election. That was never conclusively proved.

But the term October Surprise apparently dates back to the 1968 campaign between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. New York Times language maven William Safire wrote two years ago that he knows first-hand that the term was coined by the late William Casey, then a Nixon aide who went on to head the CIA under Reagan. Safire, was also a Nixon aide in ‘68, says Casey was afraid outgoing President Lyndon Johnson would engineer a Vietnam peace initiative to give Humphrey, his vice president, a boost over Nixon. Casey privately called it an October Surprise. Johnson did halt bombing in North Vietnam on Oct. 31, five days before the election, but Humphrey still lost.

And how did the phrase migrate from behind the scenes chatter in ‘68 to campaign rhetoric in ‘80? Safire gives the credit again to Reagan’s campaign manager—William Casey.

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