Smears and South Carolina politics 

Bad Boys

There are many mysteries in this world. What happened to Amelia Earhart? Who was D.B. Cooper? Where is Oceanic Flight 815? But the question of Barack Obama's middle name is not one of them. It's written across the sky in big puffy letters — Hussein.

Gasp. Well, I hope you didn't. Because it's not news. And frankly, it doesn't mean a thing. A middle name is nothing more than an initial waiting to happen. Unless you've fired a shot at the president or had your penis cut off by your wife, no one knows your middle name.

But not Obama. Consider a caller to WTMA's The Morning Buzz with Richard Todd. On Monday's program an elderly woman told Todd that one of the reasons she wouldn't vote for Obama was, in fact, his middle name. And that's a shame. Nothing scares people more than fear, and right now nothing is scarier to Americans than the idea that somebody with a funny name has managed to infiltrate our ESL society.

Yeah, I said "ESL." The American public doesn't use English to communicate as much as they speak in emoticons — disapproving frowns, condescending smiles, and red-faced, steam-spewing fits of self-righteous indignation. No one truly talks, and as a result no one listens.

Except, it seems, when it comes to smears, political ones in particular. Case in point: An e-mail missive that made the rounds last year claiming that Obama was in fact an Islamofascist in Jesus-fish clothing, all because he shared a last name with a certain former Iraqi dictator. (Just so you know, Obama was named after his father, a native of Kenya.) Bogus claims were also made that the Illinois senator attended a fundamentalist Muslim school as a child. (He didn't.)

A report last week on the PBS program NOW examined this smear and others. Particular attention was paid to how smears play a role in South Carolina politics. And perhaps no better example exists than the one made by persons unknown against Sen. John McCain.

You know the story: During the 2000 presidential campaign, a push poll was conducted (or is that orchestrated?) asking South Carolina voters if they would vote for McCain if they knew he had an illegitimate black child. (McCain and his wife had adopted a child from Bangladesh.) And although this accusation was as fake as Ashlee Simpson's new nose, it was enough to turn many against the senator. (What that says about our fellow Sandlappers, I don't ... What am I saying? We know exactly what it says. Insert scowling emoticon here.)

Now, the question of exactly who oversaw this push poll has remained a mystery for quite some time. Until now. OK. Not exactly. Read on.

Days before the NOW report aired, former Gov. Mark Sanford spokesman Will Folks announced on his blog, FITSNews, that the program would reveal exactly who was behind the push poll — notorious political consultant Warren Tompkins.

The proof? A conversation overheard by James Shannon, editor and publisher of The Beat, an alt-weekly in Greenville. In a statement to PBS, which Folks reprinted on his site, Shannon claims that he heard Jason Puhlasky, an underling of Tompkins, boast, "We gutted McCain in three days, and we can do it again." For Shannon, this was a direct admission that Tompkins and company were involved in the McCain smear. However, The Beat editor admits that it wasn't smoking gun evidence.

Ultimately, the quote didn't make it to print until Folks published it on his site. Why? Funny I should ask that. At the time, I was Shannon's boss at MetroBEAT, a paper that would later evolve into The Beat.

I vaguely remember Shannon mentioning the comment, but admittedly, my memory is hazy and those were very hazy days, a time when a young editor might find himself being escorted out of the governor's mansion by SLED or inadvertently hitting presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich in the head in a failed attempt to give the congressman rabbit ears while he was being interviewed by the press.

That said, we were wise to avoid running the quote, as were the producers of the NOW report. It's far from a direct admission. In fact, it may be nothing more than a boast from a political operative wanting to take credit for evil deeds that he may have had nothing to do with.

You know the type I'm talking about: The kid who boasts what a bad boy he is when in reality he's nothing but a goody-two-shoes. (Insert winking smiley face.).


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