Behind The 'Madrassa Hoax'

What will the first full week of Campaign '08 be remembered for? That Barack Obama was under attack for his behavior as a 6-year-old. It's worth revisiting the Madrassa Hoax story for what it tells us about our warp-speed politics.

The subtext of the story was that Obama was some kind of Muslim Manchurian Candidate (or the Russian spy played by Kevin Costner in "No Way Out")—trained in an Indonesian religious school to be a jihadist who would do Al Qaeda's work from within. Under the old media order, the whole thing would have made for a nice joke amid the somber mood surrounding President Bush's State of the Union address. But this is a different time, when every campaign lives in fear of being Swift-Boated. Even after the story was debunked, the folks at Fox News Channel wouldn't apologize, and in one case kept pushing a line on the air they knew was false.

The pathetic little saga begins on the Web site of Insight Magazine, a scandal sheet connected to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times. On Jan. 17, Insight reported that "Hillary Rodham Clinton's camp" had conducted a background check that found Obama attended a madrassa (religious seminary) when he moved with his mother and stepfather to Jakarta in the late 1960s. The idea, according to Insight, was to show that Obama was deceptive about his "Muslim past." Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson says flatly: "They made it up."

True or not, this bit of grade-school innuendo proved irresistible to Steve Doocy, know-it-all host of "Fox and Friends," Roger Ailes's idea for a right-wing morning chat show. Doocy garbled the story into a reference to Obama "spending the first decade of his life raised by a Muslim father." After John Gibson of Fox repeated this yarn, which managed to slime two campaigns simultaneously, CNN dispatched a reporter to Obama's old school in Jakarta, where he revealed it to be a normal public school with religion classes only once a week and no indication of Wahhabism, the Saudi-inspired extremist philosophy. (Indonesian schools were even more secular 40 years ago than they are today.) The whole underlying tale was untrue.

But neither this solid reporting—later backed up by ABC News—nor a categorical statement from the Obama campaign that he "has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim and is a committed Christian who attends the United Church of Christ in Chicago," killed the story. Fox was "unwilling to stop when they knew they were wrong or correct what they knew was a lie," says Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director. Executives at the network claimed that their on-air "clarification" was enough, but Fox's own people didn't get the message. Gibson—once a respected correspondent and host—went on the radio to malign the CNN reporter, John Vause. He "probably went to the very [same] madrassa" as Obama, Gibson said.

On one level, the story ended up being a net positive for Obama. His supporters were glad he fought back hard, and the emphasis on his church attendance (he committed to Christ in his 20s) may help soften the concern about his troublesome middle name, "Hussein"—a family name given him by his atheist father, a Kenyan academic whom Obama met only once in his life. Even though Fox wouldn't apologize, at least the falsity of the story was not in doubt. The problem for the Obama team is that other such stories might not lend themselves as readily to being shot down. Without being black and white, they fester in gray. And where Hillary Clinton's vulnerabilities are all a decade or so old, Obama's are new. He's so green he deserves—and will receive—more scrutiny than politicians who've been around for a while. So even when the charges are false, they are imbued with a patina of "news" that will not apply to stories about Rose Law firm billing records or cattle futures. Generally speaking, being fresh is an advantage in politics. But it makes any critical story fresh, too, when stale might be easier to squelch.

Political operatives on all sides are worried about the new rules governing their world. "We used to whine about round-the-clock cable in '96—that's child's play now," says Harold Ickes, a longtime Clinton aide getting ready to help Hillary. "The lesson of Swift Boat [the 2004 efforts to throw mud on John Kerry over his Vietnam service on a river craft] is you cannot let this stuff circulate unanswered." The implications for opposition research are only now coming into view. "If they [bloggers] can finger you trying to drop poison into the well, you'll be hurt by it," Ickes adds. "Stuff moves out so quickly that campaigns have to exercise much more control over their negative information apparatus." This could be good. When "oppo" goes transparent, it might shrivel.

Until then, the hostilities will escalate. Last week, Joe Novak, a Chicago media consultant with a longtime rivalry with David Axelrod, Obama's campaign chief, launched a Web site dedicated to trashing Obama. (One of his first hits was on Michelle Obama for sitting on the board of a pickle company that closed a plant recently.) Meanwhile, Dick Morris, the former Clinton operative turned Hillary hater, is working on a dirt-filled documentary. Unless the Clintons' courtship of Rupert Murdoch bears fruit quickly, it'll no doubt be Doocy'ed for Fox viewers as soon as it's released.