Clinton Backer Bob Kerrey on Smearing Obama

While campaigning on behalf of Hillary Clinton this week, former Senator Bob Kerrey became the fourth Clinton supporter this month to raise a false smear against Barack Obama, one of her main rivals for the Democratic nomination. Adopting the bigoted language of lies that have circulated about Obama on the Internet, Kerrey falsely implied that Obama attended an Islamist school; falsely said that Obama had "chosen" to be Christian; and falsely claimed Obama was repelled by his own middle name. Obama is actually a life-long Christian and a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. In January, CNN debunked the smears against him, reporting that allegations that he "was educated in a radical Muslim school known as a 'madrassa' are not accurate." In October, The Nation's Chris Hayes traced how false emails about Obama have gained traction online.

The smears come after several other dirty tricks from Clinton backers were exposed this month. Last week, Clinton Campaign Co-Chair Bill Shaheen falsely implied that Obama had a drug problem or possibly dealt drugs, while Clinton Campaign Pollster Mark Penn repeated similar charges on MSNBC. After over 24 hours of criticism, the Clinton Campaign announced that Shaheen made the personal decision "to step down" because the comments were unauthorized. On Monday, however, Clinton said that actually "we asked him to step down." Earlier this month, two volunteer chairs resigned from the Clinton Campaign after sending emails lying about Obama's religion, while a third Clinton volunteer was on the same email chain.

Yet Kerrey's comments are distinct because he is the highest level Clinton supporter to publicly push the Muslim smears against Obama, and he is also ratcheting up the rhetoric. In a series of high profile interviews, Kerrey has gone out of his way to cover every aspect of the smears - saying "Muslim," "madrassa," "Hussein" and that Obama chose Christianity - and also raising traitorous language. Pressed about his comments on CNN, Kerrey purported to distance himself from the very smear campaign he was advancing: "There is a smear campaign going on. And people are acting as if he's an Islamic Manchurian candidate." That phrase only turns up 29 hits on Google, however, and nine of the references quote Kerrey. So very few "people are acting" or saying that - unless they're discussing Kerrey's sly effort to raise the line of attack.

In a Sunday interview with ABC, Kerrey offered some bizarre advice on ads Obama "should" run. "There's this nonsense out there about him being a Muslim Manchurian candidate. He should do a commercial, look the camera straight in the eye, and say, 'My wife Michelle and I are Christians, but my father was a Muslim and my paternal grandfather was a Muslim, and that fact and my name means I can speak to a billion people around the world..." Apparently, Kerrey thinks people will believe that as an experienced pol, his strategy to dispel a "Muslim Manchurian" smear is to run ads that say "Muslim" more often than "Christian."

Unlike the uproar over the other smears this month, however, the Clinton Campaign is not distancing itself from Kerrey's offensive. "I know Bob. He was being very complimentary of Sen. Obama," said Clinton, according to Tuesday's Quad City Times, an Iowa newspaper. Kerrey has assiduously wrapped the smears in complimentary language, yet that approach may also suggest how deliberately he is pushing each message. Channeling the bigoted attacks on Obama, for example, he repeatedly raises the middle name "Hussein." Thus he told the Washington Post: "It's probably not something that appeals to him, but I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama." Of course, there is no evidence that Obama is repelled by his name. As The New York Times Caucus blog noted Monday night, "We don't think we've seen anywhere that Mr. Obama has disowned his name." Kerrey found another way to emphasize Hussein in his ABC interview, while ostensibly explaining his "second" reason for deciding that Obama has enough experience to be president: "His name is Barack Hussein Obama. I know that middle name is seen as a weakness by Republicans, but I don't think it is." The name "Hussein" compensates for inexperience and carries no electoral cost? Can anyone take these shifting arguments seriously? Whether assessing candidates, Obama's inner feelings, or G.O.P. strategy -- everything goes back to the smears for Kerrey.

So far, many reporters have given Kerrey the benefit of the doubt while further airing the smears. Under the misleading headline MADRASSAGATE, the Daily News even swooned that Kerrey offered "so powerful a compliment that one might think he was on the stump for Obama instead of Clinton." An odd claim, since the two words you never hear Obama backers say on TV are madrassa and Hussein. Americablog's John Aravosis, who is generally supportive of Clinton, called on the Clinton Campaign to muzzle their newest backer: "Kerrey is doing the dirty work of the Clinton campaign, or he's a rogue agent spreading racism in their name. Either way, the Clinton campaign needs to stop this, now."

He's right. Clinton should disown Kerrey's comments immediately. Given the stakes in this election and the costs of (even a perception) of lying character assasination in Iowa, I think both the Clinton and Obama campaigns would be better off without Kerrey's "complimentary" smears.

UPDATE: Readers contend that it is accurate to say Obama "chose" Christianity, since he became religious as a young man in Chicago. Given the accusations that he is hiding Muslim roots, however, it remains a questionable point for Kerrey to emphasize. Obama grew up with an unobservant Christian mother and an atheist father, and then became more observant as a young man. R.J. Escrow responds to this post by adding that "Kerrey falsely claimed Obama's father was a Muslim. Obama's father was an atheist." Again, this is another point where Kerrey has carefully pushed the agenda in a way that some would argue is technically accurate, but it suggests a careful strategy to push the smears. As The Christian Science Monitor reports:

[Obama's] father, a black Kenyan economist, was raised Muslim but was an atheist by the time Obama was born. His mother, a white Kansan, had Baptist and Methodist roots but viewed organized religion with a gimlet eye...

Finally, some readers defend Kerrey by noting that he raised the smears before, in an Economist interview posted on October 30. The Politico's Ben Smith cited the interview as one reason not to jump to "conclusions about the motives of the former Nebraska Senator." There are a few sentences from the interview quoted on the Economist site, here is a longer passage of Kerrey's answer, after a clip was played of Obama saying he would talk to friends and enemies of the U.S.:

Q. Fine words, But is, is--

K: Well they are fine words. Look I - I look at Barack Obama I think he does have substantial experience in areas that matter to me, personally. For example, he's addicted to nicotine. He's trying to kick the habit. You got a million adolescents every year in America who take up smoking. So he gonna be able to lead in the area. Second he's black. And you know, some black leaders are saying he's not, but he's black. And he can speak to youth in America, as he did in Selma, and tell them, that look, I'm for civil rights, I'm for more money in health and education, but if you don't work harder, if you aren't a good parent, if you choose self-destructive behavior there is nothing I can do to help you. And finally, I love that his name is Barack Hussein Obama; that he was educated for a while in a secular madrassa. I know the right wingers are saying that he's, you know, sort of an Islamic manchurian candidate, but he can speak like no other candidate to a billion Muslims on this earth and say we're not your enemy unless you make us so.

Got all that? First, "he's addicted to nicotine." "Second, he's black" -- even if people say "he's not," he really is. And "finally," some people say he is "an Islamic manchurian candidate," but Bob Kerrey thinks otherwise. If this interview is supposed to make Kerrey look better, then he's really in trouble.

Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this post first appeared.