On February 27, 2001, two members of the American Gold Star Mothers, an organization of women who’ve lost sons or daughters in combat, dropped by the temporary basement offices of the new junior senator from New York, Hillary Clinton. They didn’t have an appointment, and the office, which had been up and running for barely a month, was a bit discombobulated. The two women wanted to talk to the senator about a bill pending in the Senate that would provide annuities for the parents of those killed, but they were told that Clinton wasn’t in the office and that the relevant staff members were otherwise engaged. The organization later submitted a formal request in writing for a meeting, which Clinton granted, meeting and posing for pictures with four members of the group.
But the story doesn’t end there. In May of that year, the right-wing website NewsMax, a clearinghouse for innuendo and rumor, ran a short item with the headline “Hillary Snubs Gold Star Mothers.” Reporting via hearsay–a comment relayed to someone who then recounted it to the column’s author–the article claimed that Clinton and her staff “simply refused” to meet with the Gold Star Mothers, making hers the “only office” in the Senate that snubbed the group.
At first the item didn’t attract much attention, but it quickly morphed into an e-mail that started ricocheting across the Internet. “Bet this never hits the TV news!” began one version. “According to NewsMax.com there was only one politician in DC who refused to meet with these ladies. Can you guess which politician that might be?… None other than the Queen herself–the Hildebeast, Hillary Clinton.”
Before long, the Gold Star Mothers and the Clinton office found themselves inundated by inquiries about the “snub,” prompting the Gold Star Mothers to post a small item debunking the claim on their website. When that didn’t stem the tide, they posted a lengthier notice. “These allegations were not initiated by the Gold Star Mothers…. This is a fabricated report picked up by an individual using the Gold Star Mothers as an instrument to discredit Senator Clinton…. We do not need mischeivous gossip and unfounded lies to promote our organization. Please help stop it now.”
That plea notwithstanding, the e-mail continues to circulate to this day. Anyone who’s been following politics for the past fifteen years won’t be surprised to find Hillary Clinton the subject of a false and damning right-wing smear. We’ve all become familiar with the ways the Republican noise machine transmits lurid bits of misinformation and tendentious attacks from the conservative fringe into the heart of American political discourse, the process by which a slightly misdelivered joke by John Kerry attracts the ire of Rush Limbaugh and ends up on the front page of the New York Times.
But in some senses, the kind of under-the-radar attack embodied in the Gold Star e-mail–which never made the jump to Fox or Drudge–is even harder to deal with. “It’s a Pandora’s box,” says Jim Kennedy, who served as Clinton’s communications director during her first Senate term. “Once [the charges] are out in the ether, they are very hard to combat. It’s very unlike a traditional media, newspaper or TV show, or even a blog, which at least has a fixed point of reference. You know they’re traveling far and wide, but there’s no way to rebut them with all the people that have seen them.”
Such is the power of the right-wing smear forward, a vehicle for the dissemination of character assassination that has escaped the scrutiny directed at the Limbaughs and Coulters and O’Reillys but one that is as potent as it is invisible. In 2004 putative firsthand accounts of Kerry’s performance in Vietnam traveled through e-mail in right-wing circles, presaging the Swift Boat attacks. Last winter a forward began circulating accusing Barack Obama of being a secret Muslim schooled in a radical madrassa (about which more later). While the story was later fed through familiar right-wing megaphones, even making it onto Fox, it has continued to circulate via e-mail long after being definitively debunked by CNN. In other words, the few weeks the smear spent in the glare of the mainstream media was just a tiny portion of a long life cycle, most of which has been spent darting from inbox to inbox.