Smear tactics and dirty tricks are nothing new in politics, but they've reached a whole new level in the Internet age and with the United States' first major African-American presidential candidate. And the worst may be yet to come.
The first time I heard the "Barack Obama is a secret Muslim" rumor was in early December 2007 while attending a holiday get-together near Dayton, Ohio. While sitting around a table with an extended array of relatives, friends of family and others, someone brought up the topic.
In this crowd were people of all ages and education levels, and at least three people said they'd seen the e-mails implying that Obama was some sort of "Manchurian Candidate" doing the bidding of jihadists. When I mentioned how absurd that concept was, some guests shook their heads. There might be something to the rumors, they insisted: Obama had a strange sounding name and an exotic background.
From that moment on, I began telling my own friends that this "viral marketing" rumor spreading in cyberspace would be an issue that Obama eventually would have to address. They didn't believe me at first, but time proved me correct in that small regard.
Now another rumor I've heard for months from my Republican friends was dragged into the national spotlight last week.
Right-wing bloggers have maintained since last winter that an old video exists showing Michelle Obama, Barack's wife, using the slang term "whitey" while giving a fiery speech at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
In fact, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign knew about the video, which is why she was staying in the race, my GOP pals said.
All of this finally led to a point-blank question posed last week to Obama by a reporter. He replied, "We have seen this before. There is dirt and lies that are circulated in e-mails and they pump them out long enough until finally you, a mainstream reporter, asks me about it. That gives legs to the story. If somebody has evidence that myself or Michelle or anybody has said something inappropriate, let them do it."
When the reporter persisted, he didn't exactly get a denial.
"Frankly, my hope is people don't play this game," Obama said. "It is a destructive aspect of our politics. Simply because something appears in an e-mail, that should lend it no more credence than if you heard it on the corner. Presumably the job of the press is to not to go around and spread scurrilous rumors like this until there is actually anything, an iota, of substance or evidence that would substantiate it."
But the Obamas ignore these topics — no matter how outrageous — to their own peril.
As with any problem, it's better to bring it to light yourself rather than letting enemies doing it for you. Doing so shows honesty and frankness, not to mention allowing the campaign to frame the story in a manner it chooses.
Michelle Obama will be a guest host June 18 on ABC's The View morning gabfest. Cindy McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee's wife, previously served as a guest host.
The free airtime would be a good opportunity for Michelle Obama to address the topic directly and put supporters' lingering fears to rest once and for all.
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