As long as there have been rumors in politics, there has been one widely accepted way for a candidate to deal with them. Basically, it's not to. Otherwise, according to prevailing wisdom, all a candidate achieves is to elevate the rumors to a legitimate story for the media to feast on. That don't-go-there approach was Barack Obama's plan for months until, on the candidate's first full day of campaigning as his party's presumed presidential nominee, a reporter from McClatchy Newspapers who was traveling aboard his plane asked him about a particularly toxic bit of hearsay that was zooming around the Internet about his wife Michelle. Obama lost his cool. "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," Obama said, bristling. "That gives legs to the story. If somebody has evidence that myself or Michelle or anybody has said something inappropriate, let them do it."
That night, in a conference call, Obama told his top aides it was time for a more aggressive solution to the rumors that have been popping up on the Internet for months about him and his family. And so the Obama campaign has built what might best be described as a Web-based rumor clearinghouse, in which it hopes all the shady stories about Obama's faith, his family and his rumored connections with controversial figures can go to die. Obama is enlisting his millions of supporters to help him hunt down and quash these stories, just as those supporters helped him turn his insurgent campaign into a history-making juggernaut. Says Obama adviser Anita Dunn: "We will not allow Michelle--or, for that matter, Barack--to be defined by rumors."
For more than a year, Obama relied on conventional means to confront the blogosphere's superheated rumor mill--to little effect. The "fact-check" feature on his website, for instance, only seemed to spawn more, and wilder, rumors. A mention there of Obama's birth certificate spurred National Review Online to demand that he produce it to dispel groundless reports that Obama was actually born in Kenya and therefore would be constitutionally ineligible to be President; that his middle name is not Hussein but Muhammad; and that his mother actually named him Barry. That National Review article in turn became fodder for cable television.
According to campaign officials, what finally launched Obama into a full rumor counteroffensive was a story that apparently first made a big splash on the Internet in late May in a post by pro--Hillary Clinton blogger Larry Johnson. Quoting "someone in touch with a senior Republican," Johnson claimed that there was a video of Michelle Obama "blasting 'whitey' during a rant at Jeremiah Wright's church." (Later versions of the rumor had Michelle's "rant" happening at a Rainbow/push Coalition conference.) No such videotape has surfaced.
When the Obama campaign got wind of the rumor in April, Michelle's close friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett asked Michelle if there could be anything to it; the candidate's wife dismissed it out of hand. But by mid-May, it was picking up steam on the Internet, and Michelle's advisers decided it was time to have a serious talk with her about it. On a campaign swing through Oregon, Michelle's chief of staff Melissa Winter grilled her on the particulars of the various versions. Had she ever spoken at Trinity Church? Could she ever recall having uttering that racial epithet? No, no, Michelle answered again and again. Additionally, she said, "whitey" is simply not a word that African Americans of her generation tend to use--or that she herself would ever say. Michelle was shocked and frustrated when her aides approached her the second time about the alleged incident.
Obama's new rumor shredder, located at a website the campaign has named fightthesmears.com makes it easy to find both the "lies" and the "facts" behind the "mystery tape rumor." Secondary pages note that "even some conservatives don't buy it" and list two well-read conservative bloggers who have debunked the tape tale. And in what is likely to be the most read part of the new site, the campaign cites the probable sources of the stories in a section called "Who's behind the lies?" As the Obama sleuths explain it, the "Michelle Obama Mystery Tape Rumor" appears to be a work of fiction lifted "almost word for word from a novel published in 2006."
The rest of fightthesmears.com is designed to be a guided tour of other sensational rumors circulating on the Web about Obama and his family. Click on the claim that Obama attended a "radical madrasah," for instance, and it takes you to a CNN feature on the very ordinary-looking elementary school he actually went to as a child in Indonesia. The rumor that Obama was sworn in to the U.S. Senate with the Koran yields a photo of him with his hand on a family Bible. Also featured are videos of Obama saying the Pledge of Allegiance, to combat claims that he refuses to. And, yes, there is a PDF of his birth certificate. Near each rumor will be a fight-back button, offering suggestions as to where and how Obama supporters can call or e-mail to counter the rumors. The site will also have a spot where Obama supporters can alert the campaign to any new rumors they may be seeing on the Web or in their mailboxes or hearing on the telephone.
Though the latest and most poisonous rumors about Michelle were ginned up by a pro-Clinton website, Obama knows that--notwithstanding John McCain's pledge that his own campaign will not engage in smears--more rumors can be expected in a general-election campaign. Trying to kill them with oxygen and openness is a risky approach. But Obama is attempting to find the humor--and the votes--by taking the rumors head-on. Speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last week, Obama greeted his largely Jewish audience, which has had doubts about his support for Israel, some fed by anonymous e-mail, by acknowledging, "Before I begin, I want to say that I know some provocative e-mails have been circulating throughout Jewish communities across the country. A few of you may have gotten them. They're filled with tall tales and dire warnings about a certain candidate for President. And all I want to say is, Let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty frightening."
Fighting the Smears To look at Obama's new grass-roots Web effort to counter negative rumors, visit time.com/obama_websites