Political Ugly Season
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Take cover; political ugly season is upon us, and the mud is being slung far and wide.
Take the conservative website Drudge Report's allegation that presidential candidate John Kerry had an extramarital affair with a young Associate Press employee.
The unsourced allegation comes just as George Bush is feeling the heat on many fronts and is literally plummeting in the polls; a new Washington Post ABC News poll shows him losing to John Kerry 52 percent to 43 percent, and a majority of Americans (54 percent) say he fudged or lied about Iraq.
The real story of the hour, of course, is that the Bush team can't find a single soul who ever saw Bush in the National Guard in Alabama. "Years of Searching for Guard Cohorts Produces no Results," reads the Feb 13 New York Times headline (and that's despite a $1000 reward for anyone who had a Bush sighting).
The Drudge Report's timing seems to be an attempt to blunt the Bush AWOL story and turn the press's attention to something more current and salacious. As Joe Conason writes on Salon, Drudge surfaced with a "world exclusive" smudge of personal dirt. Vague and unsourced, yet hyped to the maximum, the brief item sounded disturbingly familiar. It accuses Kerry of "recent alleged infidelity" with "a woman who recently fled the country," adding that a "close friend of the woman recently approached a reporter with fantastic stories." Drudge warned that major news organizations from ABC News to the Associated Press were all over the story. But none of them reported on it.
No doubt this is the first of a number of "bombs" that will rock the Democratic presidential campaign. One immediate effect of the rumor is that it cast the first dark cloud on the cherished hope for an electable Democratic candidate in November. Poll after poll has shown that more than anything else, voters want someone who can beat George Bush. But Drudge's story -- a powerful older man having an affair with a young intern -- carries such strong echoes of recent political history that it may turn out to be irresistible to the tabloid media that has come to heavily influence American discourse.
What will that do to Kerry's electability quotient? Only time will tell.
Drudge's accusation is unsubstantiated; and whether or not it is true, the personal lives of political figures should remain private. The national media in the U.S. have so far ignored the Drudge report, although a number of local television newscasts mentioned it, as have the Philadelphia Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times. However, the Kerry story has legs on the internet; it dominates discussion on a host of political blogs and is getting feature treatment in some of the foreign press.
MSNBC talk show host Don Imus became the first major media figure to ask Kerry about the report, although he softened his inquiry with, "There's probably nothing to it."
"There is nothing to report, nothing to talk about. There's nothing there," Kerry said. "There's no story."
On the campaign trail in Wisconsin, Kerry tried to put the rumors to rest, replying to questions from reporters, "I just deny it categorically. It's rumor. It's untrue. Period."
Struggling to add fuel to a sputtering fire, radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh speculated during his Thursday broadcast that the rumor could have been leaked to Drudge by Bill or Hillary Clinton.
On the GOP side of the fence, rumors are circulating about dropping Dick Cheney as Vice Presidential candidate on the Bush ticket and replacing him, perhaps with Rudy Giuliani. There has also been conjecture about the potential timing of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden -- a la the October surprise, when Ronald Reagan announced the release of the hostages in Iran.
Voters and campaign activists had better buckle their seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy ride until November.
Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet