Obama Puts Blind Item in His Sights

By Roger Simon

November 20, 2007 5 min read

As Edward R. Murrow once said, "Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn't mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar."

For the past few days, the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns have been roaring at each other over bar talk.

And they are doing so not because it makes much sense, but because they are so well-prepared for it.

Over the weekend, Robert Novak printed what used to be called a "blind item" but now is called "daily journalism."

Novak wrote: "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."

The item probably would have died a quiet death — there have been a number of presidential candidate scandal rumors percolating on the Web that have not gotten much attention — when Obama assured that it would reach critical mass.

Obama issued a vigorous and lengthy statement saying the Novak item was "devoid of facts" and was "Swift Boat politics."

But the guilty party, Obama made clear, was not Novak — it was Clinton.

"If the purpose of this shameless item was to daunt or discourage me or supporters of our campaign from challenging and changing the politics of Washington, it will fail," Obama said in language that neatly fit into his campaign theme. "In fact, it will only serve to steel our resolve."

And he issued a challenge: "In the interest of our party, and her own reputation, Sen. Clinton should make either public any and all information referred to in the item, or concede the truth: that there is none."

Obama also whacked Clinton for hypocrisy, because she had stated during last Thursday's debate in Las Vegas that she did not like the politics of "throwing mud" but was now engaging in it herself.

The Clinton campaign fired back in a similar way: It used the exchange as a means to emphasize campaign themes.

"A Republican-leaning journalist runs a blind item designed to set Democrats against one another," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said. "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."

The salvos sailed back and forth until Sunday, when Obama muffled the guns a bit.

At a news conference, he said he believed the Clinton campaign's denials that it had spread scandalous rumors about him.

"I will take them at their word when they said that they weren't responsible," Obama said.

But it was still all Clinton's fault.

"Look, the Clinton campaign didn't come out and deny it initially," Obama said of the Novak item. "I mean, it would have been great if we had just sat back and they had indicated it wasn't true."

But why did this whole ugly exchange really take place, especially since it didn't seem to cover either campaign in glory?

At least five reasons:

One, there is the fear that if you do not deny an allegation, no matter how wild, some people will believe it.

Two, it gave both campaigns an opportunity to hit their talking points: Hillary is a hypocrite, and Obama is inexperienced.

Three, it served as inoculation so that if more stories surface, Obama can claim they are just more Clinton-inspired dirty tricks.

Four, it shifted press attention away from Obama's poor debate performance in Las Vegas and onto Hillary's allegedly poor behavior in leaking scurrilous information.

Five, just as you don't assemble huge opposition research staffs and not use their efforts, you don't assemble huge rapid response teams and not use theirs.

This is the "Guns of August" effect, a reference to World War I, which became inevitable, according to historian Barbara Tuchman, not because the war made any sense, but because both sides were so well-prepared for war that the preparation took on a life of its own.

And with both sides hunkered down in their campaign trenches, we can expect more.

To find out more about Roger Simon, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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