Two months ago, Barack Obama decided enough was enough. He had just clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, and a reporter asked him about an Internet rumor of a video showing his wife, Michelle, using a derogatory term for white people. Senator Obama was furious. There is no such video, he insisted, and to this day, none has materialized.
Then Obama told his aides: Time to get more aggressive about fighting rumors. The traditional technique of ignoring them, to avoid giving them added life in the media, just doesn’t work in the Internet age. Thus was born FightTheSmears.com, an Obama site dedicated to responding to rumors. Its goal is to give Obama supporters talking points as the charges fly.
Now, the most sensational hit job yet has reached the No. 1 spot on The New York Times bestseller list – “The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality,” by Jerome Corsi – and the Obama campaign has fought back with a 41-page rebuttal posted on the site. But Obama supporters are wondering if the senator is being tough enough. As the book got major play in the mainstream media last week, including a Corsi interview on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Obama was on vacation, leaving it to surrogates to reply.
“He’s got to be out there responding to these attacks himself, so people know he’s got the courage and the guts to be able to take those on directly,” says Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton. “You need to have the sound bite, not from 40 different people, but from him.”
The Corsi book, which portrays Obama as a lying, left-wing black liberationist with ties to Islam, is just one of many anti-Obama books either on store shelves or in the works. But it has particular cachet, because Corsi co-wrote the 2004 bestseller “Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry,” which was widely seen as helping to deflate the 2004 Democratic nominee’s Vietnam War credentials. Senator Kerry himself has launched his own website, TruthFightsBack.com, aimed at helping his successor at the top of the ticket from being “swift-boated.”
Some conservatives have suggested that “Obama Nation” won’t have the credibility of the anti-Kerry book, because “Unfit for Command” was co-written by John O’Neill, who was himself a Vietnam swift-boat veteran and who co-founded Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that produced ads against Kerry.
If Corsi had written the Obama book with ministers who had worked with Obama in the 1980s, and who felt Obama was unfit for office, then that would be a big story, opines National Review columnist Byron York in a blog. “This is not 2004,” he writes.
Another conservative and a veteran of both Bush administrations, Peter Wehner, warns in a column in Commentary Magazine that “conservatives should not hitch their hopes” to Corsi’s book. He writes that the book “seems to be riddled with factual errors” and then notes wide media reporting on some of Corsi’s unusual interests – such as the 9/11 “truth movement,” which asserts that the World Trade Center towers collapsed from explosions inside the building.
Opponents of Corsi have pointed out that his position on the Times’ bestseller list is due to conservative book groups buying the book in bulk, not widespread interest across the political spectrum.
But the book does have ties to the Republican mainstream. It is published by Simon & Schuster’s new conservative imprint, Threshold Editions, which is run by Mary Matalin, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. Ms. Matalin has called the book “a piece of scholarship, and a good one at that.”
Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has yet to respond fully to the Corsi book. On Friday, when Senator McCain was asked for a comment by an Associated Press reporter, he smiled and said, “gotta keep your sense of humor.” A campaign spokeswoman later said McCain had not heard the question and added that the campaign had no comment.
Drowned out in media coverage by all the Corsi sensation is another anti-Obama book, “The Case Against Barack Obama,” by National Review reporter David Freddoso. But readers are buying it, too: It’s at No. 5 on the Times’s nonfiction bestseller list. The Freddoso book portrays Obama as a “doctrinaire liberal,” not a reformer and it slams Obama for not bucking the vaunted Chicago political machine. Mr. Freddoso believes that the nonfactual smears against Obama have allowed him to avoid responding to more substantive critiques.
The real test of the anti-Obama books will be the voters.
But, he adds, how Obama responds to criticism and attack is an important test. “As president, you’re going to get that every day,” Mr. Geer says.