Character assassination has replaced dirty tricks in presidential politics. It’s an ugly and repugnant business that poisons our political dialogue and harms our democracy. Sometimes, it’s a bestseller.
First come the Internet blogs spreading lies and smears, followed by trash-and-destroy books by fringe ideologues repackaging the cyber garbage and adding some of their own. Then, closer to the election, the swift boats move in to finish the job. In 2004, they helped sink John Kerry’s presidential bid; in 2008, they could threaten Barack Obama’s historic march to the White House.
Less than two weeks before Obama is set to accept the Democratic nomination for president, conservative author Jerome R. Corsi’s attack book, "The Obama Nation" (abomination, get it?), debuted this week as No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list, largely on the strength of bulk purchases by conservative book clubs. The real abomination is the book itself.
Corsi, by the way, co-authored "Unfit for Command," in which swift boat veterans who served with Kerry trashed his Vietnam War record. Kerry waited too long to fight back, and by the time most of the allegations were discredited by news organizations, the damage already had been done.
If anything, Corsi’s smear of Obama is more scurrilous than his attack on Kerry’s honorable military record. He is not just sliming Obama; he is promoting a sick and offensive narrative that tries to turn Obama’s biography and race against him. He accuses Obama of having developed some "anti-American” sentiments and portrays him as a "leftist” who has misrepresented his "extensive connections to Islam" (Obama is a practicing Christian).
The low point of the book may be Corsi’s ugly swipe at Obama’s late mother, a white woman from Kansas who first married a man from Kenya and later an Indonesian. He writes that she chose "men of color” from the "Third World” to be her "mates,” and he suggests that Obama identifies more with his "African blood” than his American roots.
When there are no facts to support his wild allegations, Corsi falls back on accusatory questions. For example, Corsi asks when Obama really stopped using illegal drugs. In his autobiography, Obama admitted experimenting with drugs in his youth until around age 20.
Corsi asks: "Did Obama ever use drugs in his days as a community organizer in Chicago, or when he was a state senator from Illinois? How about in the U.S. Senate?” He also writes that "Obama has yet to answer questions about whether he ever dealt drugs.”
Why am I even repeating this garbage? It’s one way to alert voters. A vote for president should not be based on lies, inaccuracies and smears. Attack books come from both left and right, but few are as vile as Corsi’s, one of several anti-Obama books published this summer.
Corsi told The New York Times his candidate for president is not John McCain but Chuck Baldwin, the Constitution Party nominee. At least he admits the obvious — that the purpose of his book is "to keep Obama from getting elected.” In reading press accounts of Corsi’s book, I wondered why some of his attack lines seemed vaguely familiar. Then it came to me — early in the Democratic primary campaign some of Hillary Clinton’s aides and surrogates came close to portraying Obama as an exotic figure, not thoroughly American in his roots, whose admitted drug use as a youth had not been fully vetted.
According to Clinton campaign e-mails obtained by Joshua Green of the Atlantic magazine, we also know that Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist, at least toyed with the idea of questioning Obama’s background and values, which he called "a very strong weakness” in Obama.
Penn explained: "His roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.” Recognizing the delicacy of pursuing such a strategy, Penn suggested: "Let’s explicitly own ‘American’ in our programs, the speeches and the values. Make this a new American Century, the American Strategic Energy Fund. Let’s use our logo to make some flags we can give out. Let’s add flag symbols to the backgrounds.”
Penn suggested that Clinton also remind voters that she was "born in the middle of America” and talk about "the deeply American values you grew up with.” Even though Penn’s idea was roundly rejected by the rest of the Clinton high command, the fact that he even broached the subject within the campaign should be unsettling to the Obama camp.
Imagine if Corsi had gotten his hands on Penn’s memos.
(Philip Gailey is editor of editorials for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail gailey(at)sptimes.com)