The Corner

Obama and Calumny

Danielle Allen, the scholar from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., has reappeared in the pages of the Washington Post, this time with an op-ed, “Worse Than Mud,” on the dangers of smears in the presidential race. Relying on the distinction between accusation and calumny — “accusers present themselves and their evidence publicly so their accusations can be debated by the accused,” while calumny “is anonymous, secret” — Allen is distressed by anti-Obama emails, which she says are part of an ugly tradition:

How important is calumny today? In 2000, calumny effectively led to John McCain’s defeat in South Carolina. That smear campaign against him used robo-calls and fliers, and e-mail also played an important role, as the New York Times reported in February 2000. Arguably, calumny defeated John Kerry in 2004, and the infamous Swift boat television ads of that summer were, importantly, preceded by an aggressive Internet campaign begun that January that included perhaps the first viral campaign e-mail: a computer-generated image of Kerry and Jane Fonda beside each other on a podium at an antiwar rally. The image originally emerged at the Web site, and Fonda had not in fact been at the event. But the damage was done. Today we are seeing viral anti-Obama e-mails, some of which I have traced to some of the same origin points for the 2000 and 2004 smear campaigns.

Actually, there’s a lot that’s arguable in there (see below). But Allen moves on to the need for change:

A right to free speech is no excuse for lying. While strongly protected rights of free speech are critical to a healthy democracy, rights bring responsibilities. Citizens should, as a standard practice, take responsibility for their views — the matters of fact and principle that they wish to put before the public for consideration — by appending their full, legal names to their expressions, even in blog posts. While there are times and places for anonymity, it should be the exception. Unfortunately, the Internet has brought us to a point where anonymity is the rule, not the exception. Rather than facilitating free speech, this is corrosive to democratic discourse. It’s time to rebuild a responsible culture in which people speak in their full, legal names and honor the truth.

How Allen proposes to make that happen — is there any government regulation involved? — is apparently a topic for another op-ed. But I don’t get Allen’s examples. As far as 2004 is concerned, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were as un-anonymous as you could get. They put their names and faces on their accusations. So was the real problem of the 2004 campaign, for Allen, that fake photo of Kerry and Jane Fonda? Did that do the damage? I’m not sure you’d find many Kerry insiders who would attach that level of importance to it.

And when it comes to the 2000 campaign, Allen appears to fully accept the “McCain-was-smeared” version of events that she has read in the New York Times. Back in 2004, when we were hearing this a lot, I re-reviewed the story, and came away with the feeling that much of it was the creation of the McCain campaign. Please excuse a long quote from my NR piece:

McCain had beaten Bush badly in New Hampshire, and Bush might have been knocked out of the race if he had lost again in South Carolina. Therefore, according to the Democratic scenario, Bush viciously attacked McCain, smearing him with a so-called “push poll” in which the Bush campaign or its supporters called thousands of voters, ostensibly for the purpose of taking a poll, but actually to spread negative personal information about McCain. Only by resorting to underhanded tactics, the story goes, was Bush able to win South Carolina and, later, the GOP nomination.

Even though the campaign was hard fought from the beginning, the controversy really began on Feb. 10, 2000, nine days before the primary. McCain held a town-hall meeting in Spartanburg, and a woman named Donna Duren said her 14-year-old son, who idolized McCain, had answered the phone the night before and had become distressed. “He was so upset,” Duren told McCain. “He said, ‘Mom, someone told me that Senator McCain is a cheat and a liar and a fraud.’” “What you’ve just told me has had a very profound effect on me,” McCain told Duren. He subsequently sent an impassioned message to Bush: “I’m calling on my good friend George Bush to stop this now. He comes from a better family. He knows better than this.” Duren’s story became a staple of McCain’s campaign. He told it at a debate, in stump speeches, and on TV. But despite all the attention McCain lavished on the tale, there was no evidence, beyond Duren’s testimony, that it was true.

The Bush campaign had hired an out-of-state company to make about 200,000 “advocacy” calls to voters. After McCain’s criticism, the campaign released the script of those calls. The script said Bush was “working hard and stressing his message of reform with results.” It went on to say, “Unfortunately, the race has turned ugly,” and urged listeners, “Don’t be misled by McCain’s negative tactics.” It ended with more positive words about Bush. There was no mention of cheats or liars or frauds.

Nearly a week after McCain’s initial accusations, the Los Angeles Times looked into the matter. The paper found voters who had received the “advocacy” calls, but none who had received a call like the one described by Duren. “The McCain campaign has provided the names of only six voters complaining about calls from the Bush side,” the paper said. Of the voters the Times’s reporters could reach, “three described questions that, while negative, appear to have been part of a legitimate poll. Another said she heard no negative information at all.” The paper found no one who supported Duren’s accusation.

The lack of evidence, while not proof that the call story was untrue, is nevertheless telling. Republican strategists point out that in controversies over mass callings, there has almost always been a tape of the calls, usually made by the answering machines of voters who received them. When Pat Robertson made a negative call on Bush’s behalf in Michigan, for example, the story ended up on the front page of the New York Times, because someone had a tape of it. Likewise, when the McCain campaign made its infamous anti-Bush “Catholic voter alert” calls in Michigan, there was taped evidence. But there was no such evidence of the “cheat/liar/fraud” calls.

“If those calls took place, then where is the tape?” asks one GOP strategist. “You can’t make more than five phone calls and not have it end up on somebody’s answering machine. They’ve never been able to produce the individual who made the calls, they’ve never been able to produce the phone vendor who made the calls, and they’ve never been able to produce a script or a tape recording.”

The same was true of rumors of other “push poll” calls that allegedly claimed that McCain had fathered an illegitimate mixed-race child. Although later commentary has simply accepted the existence of such calls as fact–in January of this year, National Public Radio’s Linda Wertheimer reported that “mysterious callers posing as pollsters asked voters how they felt about John McCain’s black child”–there is no hard evidence that the calls occurred.

That is not to say there was no low-road campaigning. A Bob Jones University professor named Richard Hand, who had no connection to the Bush forces, sent out an e-mail containing a variety of charges against McCain, including the one that he had fathered illegitimate children. But in that case, there was evidence of the smear: the e-mail. Hand’s name quickly became public, and his message was discredited.

McCain, meanwhile, was doing real, substantial things to lose the race. He alienated a number of party loyalists by openly courting the support of Democrats. “I say to independents, Democrats, Libertarians, vegetarians, come on over,” McCain said at rally after rally. McCain further alienated GOP voters with a negative ad saying that Bush “twists the truth like Clinton. We’re all pretty tired of that.” Bush’s response got a lot of applause in the final debate when he told McCain, “Whatever you do, don’t equate my integrity and trustworthiness to Bill Clinton. That’s about as low a blow as you can give in a Republican primary.” In the end, McCain lost, with 42 percent to Bush’s 53 percent. Among Republicans, McCain lost big, with 26 percent to Bush’s 69 percent. “The things that beat him in South Carolina were when he compared Bush to Clinton and he publicly encouraged liberals and Democrats to vote for him in the primary,” says the Republican strategist.

Now, relying on the imperfect examples of 2000 and 2004, Allen argues that we’re seeing the same thing — from the same people, no less — with Barack Obama. Although she doesn’t say so, she seems to be referring to false claims that Obama is a Muslim, which she attributes entirely to Republicans and in some large part to the FreeRepublic website. Reading Allen’s op-ed, you’d never get the idea that, at the time this Muslim story was spreading, Obama was in a bitterly contested race with a Democrat, and that Democrat’s campaign had to discipline its own supporters for spreading the Muslim story, and that Democrat herself, in an appearance on “60 Minutes,” said she did not believe Obama is a Muslim, “as far as I know.”

Who knows? Maybe that had something to do with spreading the story.

And finally, Allen doesn’t appear to consider that the Obama Muslim thing didn’t just appear out of thin air. We’ve never had a candidate with as many ties to Islam as Obama, and in this post-9/11 world, that attracts attention. His grandfather was a Muslim, his stepfather was a Muslim, his half-sister told the New York Times that, “My whole family was Muslim, and most of the people I knew were Muslim,” his extended family was described in the same Times article as “a mix of Muslim and Christian Kenyans,” and the general issue of Obama’s religion has regularly been a question to those encountering him for the first time. In Dreams From My Father, he tells the story of his first visit to a barber shop in Chicago, where he had moved to become a community organizer. “What’s your name?” the barber asks. “Barack,” says Obama. “Barack, huh,” says the barber. “You a Muslim?”

So no, Obama isn’t a Muslim, and people shouldn’t send around emails saying that he is. But stories can become distorted in telling and re-telling, and when you’re a scholar looking for the source of calumnious information, sometimes it’s a good idea to look right in front of your face.


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