Sunday :: Feb 3, 2008

A Short History of Recent U.S. Presidential Politics - Part 11: The Politics of Smears and Dirty Tricks

by eriposte

[Previous parts are here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10; my 2008 Democratic Presidential primary campaign coverage is consolidated here]

When this election is over, I hope I will find some time to do an investigative piece chronicling the history of the various false smears against the Clintons that were originated during this election. In the meantime, however, I believe it is important to discuss a topic that will increase in importance as we head towards Super Tuesday - election dirty tricks and smears intended to wound one Democratic candidate or the other, but likely planned and executed by Republicans who seek to sow the seeds of division and hatred amongst the Democratic voter base. To me this is a very important topic because it is critical for supporters of both Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama to keep in mind that the simplest explanation for smears and election dirty tricks - i.e., that they are from the other Democratic candidate's campaign - is often not the correct one.

The article that prompted this post is an unfortunate and egregious race-baiting, anti-Clinton smear, that was published by Harold Meyerson on the website of the progressive American Prospect. I picked this article partly to illustrate how even mainstream progressives might unthinkingly cause mistrust within the progressive movement with their naivete. But my post here is about a broader point. If we naively buy into false and uncorroborated stories that either originate on the Left or the Right or fall for anti-Democratic election scumbaggery that is usually a defining feature of the GOP, we will run the high risk of giving the Right a weapon to pursue against the Democratic nominee in the general election and beyond.

This post is divided into the following sections for clarity, and I begin with some historical examples to lay the groundwork for my discussion of Harold Meyerson's piece.

1. The 1992 Presidential Campaign: Left-Leaning Outlets Push False Clinton Cocaine Smuggling Story, Which Becomes a Major Weapon in the Right's Arsenal Against Bill Clinton

2. The 2004 Presidential Campaign: Right-Wing Fabricates Robo-Calls, Leaflets and Emails to Hurt Kerry and Help Bush

2-1. Robo-Call Fraud

2-2. Leaflet/Flyer/Letter Fraud

2-3. Email Fraud

3. The 2008 Presidential Campaign: Right-Wing Liar Bob Novak Pushes Unsubstantiated and Incendiary Story Against Clintons, Obama Campaign Buys the Story Unthinkingly

4. The 2008 Presidential Campaign: Right-Wing Website with a History of Lying/Fabrications Pushes Race-Baiting Story against Obama by Falsely Implicating the Clintons, Right-Wing Media Spreads the Story - Obama Camp Wiser

5. Harold Meyerson: Forgetting History and Channeling Bob Novak

6. Conclusions

1. The 1992 Presidential Campaign: Left-Leaning Outlets Push False Clinton Cocaine Smuggling Story, Which Becomes a Major Weapon in the Right's Arsenal Against Bill Clinton

Let me start with some historical perspective from 1992 because some of the biases against the Clintons pre-date the Clinton presidency. Let's start with an example from pages 167 and 168 of the incredible and truly remarkable, must-read book "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton" by investigative journalists Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. We start on page 167 (note that emphasis is mine, throughout this post):

It is also unclear why L. D. Brown would submit to such an interrogation by agents of the Arkansas Project, except for his own growing commitment to their anti-Clinton crusade and the opportunities it presented him. Brown appears to have become convinced over time that Bob Tyrrell would believe almost anything the trooper told him. Eventually, he drew the Spectator editor into a story of international intrigue far more fantastic than his implausible but rather modest attempt to buttress Hale. Brown said he possessed direct, personal knowledge of Bill Clinton's connection with a legendary-CIA sponsored narcotics-smuggling cabal, at a rural airport in the western Arkansas town of Mena.

At the time L. D. Brown was making these charges we were already into the Clinton presidency. However, Conason and Lyons trace the history of these charges back to the source(s):

The earliest rumors about the smuggling of weapons and cocaine at Mena Intermountain Regional Airport appeared in 1987, emanating from liberal and leftist opponents of the Reagan administration's support for the Nicaraguan contra rebels. Outside Arkansas these rumors drew little attention, gaining wider circulation only when Reagan's most fervent admirers, without a trace of self-consciousness, picked them up a few years later to discredit Bill Clinton.
Local law enforcement officials, such as IRS investigator Russell Welch and state attorney general Winston Bryant, believed that their efforts to prosecute suspected crimes at Mena had been frustrated by federal officials in Washington as part of the cover-up, "despite a mountain of evidence," as Bryant said in 1990. As the contra war receded into history, however, the Mena story faded too, until it reappeared as an accusation against Clinton.

Revived by Clinton critics in The Nation magazine and other left-leaning outlets during the 1992 presidential campaign, but never pursued by mainstream reporters, the story proved fascinating to conservatives who previously had ridiculed all the charges of contra drug smuggling.
That troubling aspect of the Mena conspiracy didn't seem to alarm its new promoters, so long as most blame fell upon the former Arkansas governor. Reagan and Bush were history, after all, while Clinton was president; Reaganite complicity in contra drug trafficking could be treated as a footnote to garish headlines about the former Arkansas governor. In this convenient refurbishing of the Mena story, it was Clinton who had tolerated the illicit guns-for-drugs operation, enforced the cover-up, and, in the most outlandish versions, siphoned off a tidy profit from "billions" in narcodollars passing through the backwoods airstrip.

Back to the future, Conason and Lyons point out on page 173:

As a conservative, [David] Brock also found it strange that the Spectator would lend credence to a contra-cocaine story, with all its obviously ugly implications for Republican heroes like Reagan, Bush, and North. But as he learned in Miami, Tyrrell planned to spin the contra-cocaine allegations not only against Clinton but also Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who had first exposed evidence linking the contras to the drug trade back in 1986.
Soon after the Miami conference, Brock quietly decided to avoid the Kerry piece and any assignments related to the Arkansas Project or Rex Armistead. He and other staffers later tried to convince Tyrrell that using Mena against Clinton made no sense, that Reed's allegations were ridiculous, and that publishing this kind of dubious material would damage the Spectator's reputation.

There's a lot more detail that Conason and Lyons go into - and you should buy the book and read it cover-to-cover if you haven't already - but I picked this example for a couple of reasons. Partly valid charges against the Reagan administration were turned by some people on the left into a deeply offensive and false story against Bill Clinton during the 1992 Presidential campaign. Following that, this story was picked up by the Right to run a years-long campaign of fraud against Clinton. This is an example of a story where the right successfully used garbage produced by the left, against a leading Democrat, in order to try and destroy that Democrat. If you do a Google search on the web today you will find numerous websites listing some of the false stories that got published in that era that falsely implicated Clinton in cocaine or drug smuggling.

2. The 2004 Presidential Campaign: Right-Wing Fabricates Robo-Calls, Leaflets and Emails to Hurt Kerry and Help Bush

Having closely followed election fraud and vote suppression during the 2004 campaign I want to list a few examples here to help us recall how the Right operates.

2-1. Robo-Call Fraud

Here's a blatant one where someone took a legitimate Democratic robo-call and spliced in an edit to create a fraudulent version:

Here is the news report:

Lifelong Republican Richard Bonnet pays attention to politics, so when he found a message on his answering machine from Norman Schwarzkopf saying he was voting for John Kerry this year, he was momentarily stunned.

"I thought I saw Bush down in Florida, with Schwarzkopf standing on the stage next to him," Bonnet, 69, of Howell Township, said Monday. "So I called up the Monmouth County Republican headquarters and they said he was a Bush supporter."

On Sunday, the retired general gave Bush a strong endorsement in Tampa, Fla. Schwarzkopf released a statement Monday saying that the Democratic National Committee was making fraudulent phone calls and demanded that they stop.

"I am supporting President Bush for re-election because he is the candidate who has demonstrated the conviction needed to defeat terrorism," Schwarzkopf said.

The taped phone call ends with a voice saying the ad was paid for by the DNC. DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera said Republicans spliced an ad taped by Gen. Merrill McPeak to make it sound as if Schwarzkopf was speaking so they could accuse Democrats of dirty tricks. State Republicans denied being involved.

"Purposefully misleading the voters to believe that New Jersey native Gen. Schwarzkopf has endorsed Sen. Kerry is disgraceful," said Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, chairman of the New Jersey Republican State Committee. "We demand that this matter be fully investigated and the DNC should immediately halt such calls."

The taped message, which Republicans provided to The Associated Press, begins with a man identifying himself as Schwarzkopf.

"In 2000, I voted for George W. Bush, but this year I'm voting for John Kerry." The man goes on to say that Bush took his eye off the ball when it came to finding the people responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed nearly 700 New Jersey residents.

"John Kerry has a real plan to make our military stronger and to go after terrorists wherever they hide," the man says on the tape. "We need a vote for change, a vote for John Kerry."


The DNC issued this press release in response summarizing what happened:

Washington DC - Today, the Republican National Committee tried to falsely accuse the Democratic National Committee of claiming the endorsement of General Schwarzkopf. In fact, the RNC spliced a DNC recorded telephone call by General Merrill "Tony" McPeak, urging voters to vote for John Kerry, and attempted to peddle the doctored audio file to the press.

In response, DNC Communications Director Jano Cabrera issued the following statement:

"This is a desperate, pathetic, 11th hour dirty trick by the Republicans. In an effort to gin up a last minute media controversy and smear the Democrats, the Republicans intentionally spliced a recorded call by Four Star General 'Tony' McPeak and tried to peddle it to the press. This type of dishonesty is a fitting end to George W. Bush's failed Presidency, a Presidency that unfortunately for the American people, was also defined by deceit and deception."

General McPeak's recorded telephone call is available for download here.

Transcript of General McPeak's call:

Hi, I'm General Tony McPeak and as Chief of the Air Force during the first Gulf War, I worked closely with Colin Powell and Norm Schwarzkopf. In 2000, I voted for George W. Bush. This year I'm voting for John Kerry. George Bush took his eye off the ball and the war on terror and took us into a poorly planned war in Iraq, letting Al Qaeda, the people responsible for September 11th attack on us, regroup. John Kerry has a real plan to make the military stronger and to go after the terrorists wherever they hide. On November 2 we need to vote for change, a vote for John Kerry.

This was a clear case of someone having taken an actual recorded telephone call made by the DNC, splicing in the name of a different person into the call and deceiving voters using the modified call. These are the kinds of dirty tricks that the GOP has shown no compunction against using and we should fully expect that during this primary and the general election we will see fraudulent robo-calls of this nature against one or both of our Democratic candidates.

The most common type of fraudulent robo-call that the Right employed in 2004 was the one claiming to be from a Democratic campaign or a progressive interest group but giving progressive voters wrong information - either about polling places or about the Democratic candidate or about their eligibility to vote. Here are some examples:

Some of you may also recall the systematic and massive robo-call fraud employed by the GOP in the 2006 election, where they sometimes woke up voters in the middle of the night with calls pretending to be from the Democratic candidate.

2-2. Leaflet/Flyer/Letter Fraud

Leaflet/flyer/letter fraud was very common during the 2004 election. Typically these leaflets/flyers or letters would provide voters with wrong information in order to hurt the Democrat's chance of winning the election. Examples include:

Particularly egregious and racially charged versions were distributed in South Carolina and Wisconsin and other tailored variations were observed in places like Pennsylvania.

Additional, virulent types of leaflet/flyer fraud included ones portraying the Republican candidate in a disgusting way, to make it appear that it was the Democrat distributing such nasty stuff. For example:

Karl-Rove style Dirty Trick from Tennessee makes its move to Georgia

Remember the dirty trick in Tennessee surrounding the egregious flyer "Voting for Bush is Like Running in the Special Olympics -- Even if You Win, You're Still Retarded"? As was highlighted there, there is no evidence that the Democrats put out this flier and the evidence suggests it was a dirty trick that was played ON the Democrats.

Well, James B3 on Dailykos points out that this has spread to Georgia.

Here's an article:

An upset Debra Lyons lashed out at Democrats for allegedly distributing political flyers that take shots at retarded people.

Lyons, Chair of the Bibb County Republican Party, referred to a picture of person running on a track.

It says voting for Bush would be like running in the Special Olympics, "even if you win, you're still retarded."

Lyons said several were distributed in the Howard Oaks neighborhood in North Macon.

She called it wrong and condemned it as a dirty campaign tactic.

"First of all, this is wrong and to condemn this type of campaigning that's being done. Second, to say to the women supporting Kerry's candidacy, where are you to condemn this because it appears to me that it was an initiative supporting Kerry since their literature was put with this."

Chair of Democratic Women of Bibb County Terry Tripp says she was surprised that Republican Debra Lyons would think Democrats would stoop that low.

Tripp also said she wouldn't be surprised if the Republicans distributed the flyer themselves to anger their own voters into coming out to the polls.

Amy Morton, State Coordinator of Women for Kerry-Edwards, reacted sharply to Debra Lyons' accusations.

"We find the accusations to be ridiculous, and we are apalled that anyone would distribute this information. We think it's wrong, and it has no place whatsoever in politics."

Morton said she has heard of flyers like this popping up in other states. She felt Lyons should have contacted the Democratic Women for Kerry-Edwards about the matter before she called a press conference.

We contacted Debra Lyons afterwards, and she told us "It is not her responsibilty to call them to inform them of her plans to hold a press conference. It is only her responsibility to make sure this type of campaigning doesn't take place again."

2-3. Email Fraud

Sometimes, emails were used instead of leaflets to deliberately misinform Democratic voters about their polling date or location. An example:

Another example from 2004 is the fabricated email dirty-trick:

Atrios reports:

Someone has been sending out this email, from a spoofed email address claiming to be Joe Lockhart:

To all Amercans:

We as Democrats owe it to our great country to vote for the most qualified and honest man for the job of Chief of Staffand President of the United States.

With that in mind we the Democrats of Washington D.C. ask that you, the American people vote for George W. Bush for President of the United States.

Why? Because The Encumbent President has pulled this great country together in times of war, terrorist attacks and recession.

After many years of loyal service to Mr. John Kerry and one of his closest aides, I can’t in good consciousness support him any longers.

Vote Republican on November 2nd …. Vote Bush.

Thank you,

Joe Lockhart

Bottom line? Don't believe every robo-call, flyer, letter or email you get and attribute it automatically to another Democratic campaign. The reality might be quite different.

3. The 2008 Presidential Campaign: Right-Wing Liar Bob Novak Pushes Unsubstantiated and Incendiary Story Against Clintons, Obama Campaign Buys the Story Unthinkingly

This incident was discussed by Taylor Marsh:

Remember that Novak column? You know, the one that warned the Clinton camp was ready to spread dirt on Obama that had Barack parroting the Prince of Darkness's drivel in a statement about being "swiftboated."

Agents of Sen. Hillary Clinton are spreading the word in Democratic circles that she has scandalous information about her principal opponent for the party's presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama, but has decided not to use it. The nature of the alleged scandal was not disclosed. ... ..

Hillary vs. Obama?

As the Clinton campaign said at the time, Novak was full of it. Howard Wolfson:

Once again Senator Obama is echoing Republican talking points, this time from Bob Novak.

This is how Republicans work.

A Republican-leaning journalist runs a blind item designed to set Democrats against one another. Experienced Democrats see this for what it is. Others get distracted and thrown off their games.

Voters should be concerned about the readiness of any Democrat inexperienced enough to fall for this.

There is a campaign in this race that has engaged in the very practice that Senator Obama is decrying, and it's his.

We have no idea what Mr. Novak's item is about and reject it totally. Instead of pointing fingers at us, Senator Obama should get back to the issues and focus on what this election is really about.

According to Ben Smith, we once again learn that believing anything Novak says is a mistake. Smith reports that tomorrow's Novak column will allegedly say that the "scandal" was nothing but the information on Obama's Hopefund PAC. In early December, Clinton challenged the legalities of what Obama's team was doing with Hopefund in regards to election law on her presidential site, making no secret about it. Also, it's not very sexy stuff. It raised some sharp criticism in some places about Obama's PAC, but it's not exactly "scandalous information," now is it? In the end, everyone yawned and moved on. It wasn't anything near the pitch of Obama's big presser. As Ben Smith states, it's also unlikely any reader had election law in mind when Obama went screaming to the media about Novak's gossip, obviously in the hopes of sliming Clinton for dirty tricks. Who caares if the campaign denied it and it wasn't true? It had the added benefit of taking the attention way from Obama's dismal debate performance out of Las Vegas.

Obama jumped the gun and was quick to go after a Democrat, even when the Plamegate traitor Novak was involved. At least Mr. Obama let's us know his priorities.

To quote Greg Sargent, any chance we can all agree not to waste our time talking about it the next time Novak says something like this?

4. The 2008 Presidential Campaign: Right-Wing Website with a History of Lying/Fabrications Pushes Race-Baiting Story against Obama by Falsely Implicating the Clintons, Right-Wing Media Spreads the Story - Obama Camp Wiser

Media Matters:

On January 17, published an article claiming that "researchers connected to" Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) disclosed that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) "spent at least four years in a so-called Madrassa, or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia." The story claimed that "sources close to [a] background check," which was supposedly "conducted by researchers connected to Senator Clinton," said that "[t]he idea is to show Obama as deceptive." These "sources" also speculated that the "the specific Madrassa Mr. Obama attended" might have taught "a Wahhabi doctrine that denies the rights of non-Muslims." The story also noted that in each of his two books, Obama "mentions but does not expand on his Muslim background." The article cited only anonymous sources. By January 19, the story had been picked up by conservative media figures and given prominent play on major television networks, such as CNN Headline News and Fox News.

On January 29, The New York Times reported that the article "was able to set off a wave of television commentary, talk-radio chatter, official denials, investigations by journalists around the globe and news media self-analysis that has lasted 11 days and counting." Media Matters for America was one of the first to report on the media's coverage of the smear, including an item posted on January 19. Below is a timeline of how a smear originated by a conservative website turned into 11 days of baseless accusations against two leading contenders for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination:


A January 20 New York Post article quoted Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson saying, "We have no connection to this story." The article further reported that Obama strategist David Axelrod said he did not "believe ... for a second" the allegation that Clinton's camp was behind the story. Nonetheless, on the January 20 edition of Fox News' Fox News Watch, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas said there are "[a] lot of questions" about whether Obama "spent two years in a Muslim school in Indonesia," and that "[t]hey start off these schools, if it was a madrassa, with a reference to God and his only prophet is Muhammad." Thomas added: "And that's a fair question, by the way, before anybody writes about religious bigotry."

The two examples above illustrate the classic right-wing smear. Attack or smear a Democrat or progressive and implicate his or her Democratic opponent without providing any sourcing or evidence - and let the media pick up the smear and damage both Democrats. On this occasion, the Obama campaign, wisely, refused to bite.

5. Harold Meyerson: Forgetting History and Channeling Bob Novak

In the previous sections I provided a brief history of how Republicans and the Right use smears, fake robo-calls, and fraudulent leaflets/letters or emails, to compromise Democratic candidates. The GOP is suffering in the 2008 election because of poor candidates and a demoralized base and they are therefore trying desperately to pit Democrats against each other to create bad blood and divide the Democratic base ahead of the general election. Let there be no doubt that they have very much been interfering in the Democratic primary - whether it is through smears, ads, emails, self-admitted robo-calls against Clinton or encouraging Democrats to vote one way or the other (typically in favor of Obama who they claim to "like", in order to defeat Clinton who they hate). Given this context, I must say I was terribly disappointed by Harold Meyerson's thoughtless smear piece(s) against the Clinton campaign/supporters. (UPDATE: As Taylor notes, Meyerson's post has been significantly updated as of this morning to remove any references to the Clinton campaign or Clinton supporters of being behind this and I want to credit the editors of The American Prospect for this).

I'm going to reproduce most of Taylor's post on this subject first (emphasis in original - unless otherwise stated) and then I'll add some comments below that:

Yesterday, Washington Post columnist and American Prospect editor Harold Meyerson, who just endorsed Obama, put up a post that caught my attention and reminded me of how dirty tricks and smears begin. The title was: "Hillary Plays the Race Card." I still call Los Angeles home after living there for 18 years, so when I saw the post I knew the inflammatory nature of it and the intent, because race in L.A. will always be a major flash point (reader hadenough posted on it yesterday as well). When clicking on that link today, however, I found that Meyerson's post has been scrubbed from the American Prospect website. The screen capture above proves the point, but here's the post, which iis no longer available on the web:


I was visiting a friend in Los Angeles this morning when what can only be described as a Clinton Dirty Trick intruded upon us. My friend, I should say, is a notable political figure in L.A. who lives in a very upscale neighborhood -- one in which few African Americans reside -- and is a Clinton supporter (he greeted me holding a Hillary lawn sign).

We were sitting in his kitchen when the phone rang. He answered it and looked startled. On the line, he said the moment he hung up, was a high-decibel gentleman with a very exaggerated, old style -- Amos 'n Andy, in fact -- black pattern of speech, singing the praises of Barack Obama. When I lived in L.A., I occasionally got calls that purported to be from one campaign but were actually from another, presumably pitched to the leading ethnic group in my neighborhood (Jewish), but calculated to inflame Jews against the candidate the caller claimed to support. Looks like the same thing is happening now in selected neighborhoods as a Clinton ploy against Obama.

With the race narrowed down to two candidates, deniability is getting harder. And if this call was what it seemed to be, it looks like the Clinton campaign, or that of one of the groups campaigning on her behalf, is playing the race card discreetly -- and despicably.

--Harold Meyerson

Meyerson makes the leap, without one single fact, that Clinton's campaign was the one who is "playing the race card discreetly -- and despicably." The title of his post blames Hillary personally, again without any proof. The comments roundly slammed him, even demanding that he take the post down, offer a retraction, but also included a few of the usual Hillary hating suspects. Now you also can no longer see the comments that attack Meyerson.

The Clinton campaign flatly denied this action when I asked them for comment yesterday, posting this item:

False Smear Against Clinton Campaign

There are accusations on a blog attributing an offensive phone call to the Clinton campaign.

This is an outrageous and baseless allegation and is completely false.

2/1/2008 7:08:58 PM #

Late yesterday, Meyerson put up a second post. Notice the title this time: THE RACE CARD IN L.A., PART 2. Again, the first title that accompanied the post that has now been scrubbed was: "Hillary Plays the Race Card."

And my friend is very savvy about the kinds of things that go on in Los Angeles-area elections. As am I. I was the political editor of the L.A. Weekly for 14 years. I am still the L.A. Times' go-to guest writer when they want pieces on L.A. politics for the Sunday Opinion section. Both my friend and I know this is something that happens in L.A. politics, that the political organizations of some of the people and groups who endorse major candidates have been known to engage in these things. (And that campaigns themselves have engaged in these things, since they're hard to trace -- but not, I'm sure, presidential campaigns.)

... .. As I said, I have no reason to think the Clinton campaign itself sanctioned or had any knowledge of these calls. I cannot empirically verify that the call came from some group backing Hillary Clinton. But based on my knowledge of L.A. elections, I certainly believe it came from such a group, and the odds that it didn't are roughly the odds that O.J. was innocent.


I know Meyerson only slightly, though we have traded emails on occasion, but I've always respected him. He was the political editor when I was at the LA Weekly in the lowly position of "relationship consultant," where I used every opportunity to sneak in political opinion articles through my column until someone in editorial put his foot down. After that happened, my column appeared with the editorial disclaimer of "advertisement." Since that time, Meyerson has risen in power and outreach that includes not only the Prospect, but also the Washington Post, as well as the LA Times.

The American Prospect is an important progressive voice. I in no way attribute Meyerson's outrageous racial smear post against Hillary Clinton, or his subsequent covering of that smear, which is as unethical as the first post, to that magazine or website, but the fact that they would scrub his first post, then have a second post from him that reads as an unrepentant, ego covering screed, does diminish the Prospect in my eyes. They are obviously trying to cover for Meyerson, which does their other writers a real disservice, not to mention their readers and subscribers.

This event sadly brings into question Meyerson's credibility. Because he obviously, openly and willingly used his powerful voice to spread unfounded, unsubstantiated rumors, while race baiting, on behalf of Mr. Obama whom he's endorsed, in order to push a potentially devastating smear against Hillary Clinton and her campaign. [Eriposte emphasis] Meyerson no doubt knows the inflammatory nature of an accusation like this in Los Angeles, as he states in "part 2," with this one section proving Meyerson's motives:

And my friend is very savvy about the kinds of things that go on in Los Angeles-area elections. As am I. I was the political editor of the L.A. Weekly for 14 years. I am still the L.A. Times' go-to guest writer when they want pieces on L.A. politics for the Sunday Opinion section. ... ..

... .. I'm sure it didn't come from the Clinton campaign itself, and I have no reason to think the campaign knew about it. But I'm equally sure that the reason for these calls was to upset credulous listeners about Barack Obama, and it is highly reasonable to conclude that the only groups making such calls at this moment would be groups that wished to prevent Obama from winning the California primary next Tuesday -- that is, groups that favor Clinton. ... ..

As long as Meyerson is the one who initially brought speculation into the picture, it evidently never occurs to him that he's been duped and that it's just as plausible to believe the Obama campaign is having people make these calls because they know some gullible supporter and anti Hillary person will regurgitate them, playing the willful stenographer for the Obama campaign. After all, a Hillary hit on race is as good as it gets, right? If you can accuse Clinton personally, why is it not just as easy for this irresponsible postulating to go the other way?

It's one thing to report the telephone call, which may be a news item if correctly offered through unbiased reporting. It's quite another to first attribute it to Hillary Clinton, then post on it without any proof, obviously in the hopes of damaging Clinton through race baiting. Then scrub the first post, and offer a second one, without the first post being available, which is obviously not only meant to rehabilitate Meyerson, but to continue the charge by causing confusion. Meyerson then writing a follow up saying that it wasn't Clinton or her campaign, both having nothing to do with it, but instead it's her supporters who are all a bunch of racists. No reputable or honest Clinton supporter would ever make such a call out of L.A. or anywhere else. But anyone remotely familiar with L.A's troubled racial history would have to know the blowback of something so despicable. It is ignorant in the extreme or perhaps malicious to float such an idea.

Harold Meyerson damaged his reputation with his first post. But scrubbing it and offering this subsequent post moving the target from Clinton to her supporters makes it even worse for him. It has also done harm to the American Prospect, which gives me no pleasure to say, and does a further disservice to the other fine writers, but also subscribers and web visitors who have come to trust their brand. As a columnist for the Washington Post and the LA Times, it puts into question Meyerson's judgment and journalist ethics. It's not enough to scrub the post, in my opinion. Meyerson and the American Prospect owe their readers, regardless of whom they support, a full retraction. For a man of Meyerson's experience and reputation to dig his heels in on this, which he obviously is doing by evidence of his second post, is alarming, but extremely unprofessional.

Meyerson was very wrong to smear Sen. Clinton and her campaign with his first post without any substantiation or evidence. He and his editors at The American Prospect were wrong to merely scrub the original post without printing some kind of a retraction in place of that post. Meyerson was also wrong to mislead readers in his second post about what he had stated in his original post and then wildly speculate about supporters of Clintons having been behind the robo-call. As one of his readers points out:

My post occasioned some indignation when I surmised the call came from operatives working for some organization that supported Hillary Clinton. I'm sure it didn't come from the Clinton campaign itself

But that isn't exactly what you surmised, is it? In your original post, which (before it was judiciously edited) you wrote:

it looks like the Clinton campaign, or that of one of the groups campaigning on her behalf, is playing the race card discreetly -- and despicably.

The original post was bad enough. Now you're lying in our faces about what it said. Talk about despicable...

Posted by: Swift Loris | February 2, 2008 7:08 AM


....In either case its a kind of journalistic malpractice to continue to flog this dead horse. And introducing the bona fides of "your friend" and "your experience" as proof of baseless assertion? Even more embarrassing.


Posted by: aimai | February 2, 2008 9:42 AM

I don't know Meyerson but I believe he is generally a well-regarded progressive. Especially given the so-called "experience" he cites, it is distressing that he did not take into account other possible and more obvious explanations for the robo-call. In fact some of his own readers laid out these possibilities. For example:

Isn't the likeliest explanation that the call originates from the Obama campaign? It's obviously an effort to discredit the Clinton campaign, and it's working thanks to Obama injecting race into the campaign and your baseless allegations.

Posted by: hillbot | February 2, 2008 10:41 AM


I don't understand how we are supposed to take this seriously. What did the caller say?

Obama has a volunteer program though his website through which anyone can make calls around the country to primary voters.

There's just no proof here that this call was anything but an earnest call on behalf of Obama, or a prank played by an individual.

Posted by: Skeptical | February 2, 2008 11:25 AM


... and it is highly reasonable to conclude that the only groups making such calls at this moment would be groups that wished to prevent Obama from winning the California primary next Tuesday -- that is, groups that favor Clinton.

No it is not. It is not reasonable to assume anything of the sort.

Let's recall, for the slow learners with poor memories, the last batch sensational of dirty robo-calls came from a Republican (see TPM).

As you've described him, your buddy from Sacto is not too imaginative. CA GOP dirty-tricksters have funded Green candidates (SD15), ran illegal phone banks claiming to be Democrats, and trumped up a recall election. And these examples sell short solo entrepreneurial efforts that never make the front page.

The fact is, you don't have facts, and this call could have been from anyone.

Posted by: Pacific John | February 2, 2008 12:46 PM


To reiterate - the fact that the possibility that Republican supports would like to make these sorts of calls to sew the dissent that one sees in this comment section doesn't even enter Meyerson's mind is extremely disturbing. [...]

Posted by: DougMN | February 2, 2008 2:54 PM

Since I haven't heard this call I have no idea how to interpret it and assess its nature or its source. But even if we assume it is a nasty call and rule out the possibility that the Obama campaign was behind it, there are two other obvious explanations in addition to Meyerson's ridiculous speculation tarring the Clinton camp or its supporters. One explanation is that it might have been a prank caller. Another explanation, which is the more likely one if the call was indeed offensive, is that Republicans who want to piss off Clinton supporters or make people vote against the Clintons could easily have engineered this call. (UPDATE: As Taylor notes, Meyerson's post has been significantly updated as of this morning to remove any references to the Clinton campaign or Clinton supporters of being behind this and I want to credit the editors of The American Prospect for this).

6. Conclusions

As the Democratic primary campaign heats up further, we will likely see an increasing number of outrageous smears and dirty tricks. In my opinion, history suggests that many, if not most, of these will likely originate from Republicans - to divide Democratic voters especially through race-baiting or sexism. Republicans have already been sowing the seeds of division amongst Democrats through false accusations against Sen. Clinton intended to smear her and attack Sen. Obama at the same time. It is therefore irresponsible for allegedly "experienced" Democrats like Meyerson to unthinkingly publish unsubstantiated, speculative and racial smears about one of the two Democrats left in the race. That said, this post is not about Meyerson. It is a call to all progressives to not jump to conclusions at the first sign of a smear or dirty trick in the coming weeks and realize that this election also involves Republicans, not just Democrats. Republicans are masters at the art of dirty tricks in elections and they are trying to figure out how to win this year given their base is demoralized. Let's not forget that.

eriposte :: 9:24 AM :: Comments (3) :: Digg It!