Where There's Smoke...There's an Arsonist With an Agenda

Have you heard?

I heard it too. The news about Hillary having the goods on Obama. I heard it from a Republican friend of mine, who usually looks to me for inside information about what’s going on in Clinton-land, rather than the other way around. But since I never heard any such thing from anyone who was actually inside the Clinton campaign, it never occurred to me to spread an unverified rumor from a source with no direct reason to know to the rest of the world.

I also heard, as has been reported on various blogs, that the Los Angeles Times was sitting on a story about Bill Clinton and what we used to call the “babes” issue. I actually tried checking that out with a friend of mine who’s been at the Los Angeles Times for a few decades, and usually at least knows what can’t be told, but again, brick wall.

So there it is, or was, as far as I’m concerned. Stories with no names attached, no facts, and no sources aren’t stories. They aren’t worth writing about, or talking about, much less having campaigns react to. How old-fashioned of me.

Truth is, it’s experience and not age that has shaped my approach. I know too much about how these things work.

In the early summer of 1988, Time Magazine ran an item about how I had deliberately snubbed Jesse Jackson in the vice presidential process by not placing a call to his then-campaign manager, Ron Brown, to tell him that we’d selected Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to be Gov. Dukakis’ running mate. There was no source for the item, but it purported to be news, not gossip. It infuriated me because as it happened, it was totally wrong.

Ron Brown, who went on to be Commerce Secretary before dying in a tragic plane crash, was one of my best friends in politics. We had traveled together in the 1980 Kennedy Campaign, and shared an office afterwards in the Senate. We planned to run the Judiciary Committee together but for the small problem that the Democrats then lost control of the Senate. Not only had I called him, I had gone to great lengths to make sure I knew where he’d be so that I could reach him. The item, or whatever you call it, didn’t have an iota of truth to it.

I called Time to tell them that. So did Ron. It didn’t matter. We’re standing by our story, they told me. How can you stand by a story that everyone involved tells you is wrong? Because of the stature of the source, they finally explained, and actually told me who it was, as if that would make it true. It was a New York-based consultant, who has since died, who wasn’t particularly close to either Ron or me, and despite his long experience in politics, had absolutely no role in either of our campaigns.

He was, in what I have no doubt was an unaccustomed and uncomfortable position for him, on the “outs” at that particular moment, and clearly he didn’t like it. So he made up a story that could have been true, but wasn’t, as would have been apparent to anyone who knew better, which included neither him nor the reporter who filed it. I never found out who the supposed “second” source for the story was, as if it mattered. Someone who knew even less.

A few months later, I confronted an even more troubling problem. Rumors were flying that some unnamed paper -- maybe the Detroit paper, maybe the Los Angeles one, it’s always somebody -- was sitting on a story that Gov. Dukakis had been treated by a psychiatrist for serious depression. Now, I could make the case that anyone who runs for president is a little crazy, and that psychiatric treatment could only help, but in those days, when people still remembered the story of George McGovern being forced to drop Sen. Eagleton from the ticket in the wake of revelations that he had received electric shock treatment, the smell of mental illness was definitely not one anyone wanted circulating a presidential campaign airplane.

Every day, I would get calls from reporters, asking for comment. But if you deny a rumor, you turn it into news. If you ignore it, the danger is that it festers. After more than a week of this, then President Reagan dropped the dime. Asked in a news conference some question about Dukakis’ position on something, he replied that he was not going to comment about an "invalid."

That was it. When the president makes a joke about a rumor, the rumor becomes news. We had no choice but to buy a new tie for the governor’s personal physician, get him ready for live television, and hold a news conference to deny, complete with medical records, that he had ever been treated for depression. I knew it was a disaster when one station, in its promo for the evening news, teased: "Dukakis not crazy, More at 11." My mother wanted to know why I didn’t tell her, and who his doctor was. We dropped something like eight points overnight.

Where there's smoke there’s fire, people figured. Or an arsonist.

It was later revealed that the rumor had been "put out" by the Republican National Committee, under the direction of the late Lee Atwater, who had used the very same trick before against another opponent.

So if anyone tells you that the internet is responsible for turning rumors into news, and allowing lies to be a weapon in politics, the fact is that they’re wrong. It’s nothing new. Not even close. The press makes mistakes all too often even when they’re not trying to; ask any group, as I do my students every year, how many have read a news story where they were actually privy to the facts, and found undeniable mistakes, and virtually every hand will go up.

And the press makes even more mistakes when there are people out there who, for competitive reasons, both personal and political, are trying to make themselves seem more important than they are, or trying to put one or both candidates in a difficult if not impossible position. The internet may make it easier, faster and more effective, but lies, liars, and rumormongers are hardly its invention.

Only Bob Novak knows who told him that someone told them that the Clinton camp had dirt on Obama, but the real issue is not the conservative Mr. Novak, who few Democrats I know confide in, but letting him play any role at all in the primary contest. We should all know better, and that applies to Hillary, Barack, their camps, and the rest of us, who waste our breath speculating about what, in a court of law, would count as double hearsay.

But it’s only a taste of what’s to come, and if it serves any useful purpose, it should be to warn voters, who are the ultimate audience for this, that smoke and even fire often mean nothing more than that a disgruntled arsonist is plying his trade at all of our expense.

Click here to link to Susan's new book, "Soulless. "

Respond to the Writer