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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Clark falls prey to anti-Kerry rumor mill

WASHINGTON

POLITICS ASIDE, the quick endorsement of John Kerry by presidential candidate emeritus Wesley Clark might best be understood as an act of contrition for two egregious sins that ironically serve as bookends for this month's degrading detour into campaign slime.

 

The sin of commission occurred during an astonishing, even for a rookie, judgment lapse with the gaggle of reporters covering his campaign on its final day last week. Bantering with them at length under supposedly off-the-record ground rules, Clark actually said he was still in the race because he thought Kerry's campaign was going to implode over what he inelegantly called an "intern" scandal.

The sin of omission occurred in January, when Clark stood mute while filmmaker Michael Moore referred to President Bush as a "deserter" during the Vietnam War era while endorsing Clark.

The first sin is part of a chain of truly weird events that has produced a classic bit of modern media manipulation that has slowly but surely in turn produced the following phenomenon -- published rumors about the possibility of a story about Kerry fooling around with a young woman appearing despite the absence of any allegation (much less purported information) to that effect.

The second sin -- compounded by Democratic National chairman Terry McAuliffe's equally irresponsible labeling, without evidence, of Bush as having been "AWOL" during his National Guard service more than 30 years ago -- has helped spawn a classic example of journalism by millimeter-length "facts" that raise sinister questions without answering them.

In the first instance, a few days of absurd public behavior after a few weeks of equally absurd undercurrents and rumor-mongering have resulted in a new journalistic low -- a frenzy about a "story" that hasn't been written concerning an "allegation" that hasn't been made.

In the second instance, the public is left with the choice of being tortured by daily developments that add and subtract minutely from an overall picture that is completely obscured. For the minority who prefer waiting for real evidence, there is only one fact: President Bush promised last weekend to release all of his service records and until Friday night had resisted doing so.

Clark's rumor-mongering with his press corps about Kerry was the visible tip of an iceberg of rumor-mongering that had gone on for weeks, stirred not only by some of his fund-raisers but also among the press by aides and consultants that "something" was coming. This is how spin doctors feed gossip mills without actually providing gossip.

His comments -- instantly passed on to home offices and then to others, proving why nothing is off-the-record with more than one person in a presidential campaign, and probably shouldn't be. They had the effect of drawing unwarranted attention to a supermarket tabloid clip job on Kerry's private life last week that rehashed the astonishing fact that the senator appears to have been single when he wasn't married.

So where was the rumored "story"? Into the breach stepped the right wing -- Matt Drudge's website and associated radio shows, and right-wing and Rupert Murdoch-owned British outlets, and their tried and true methods all for getting trash into the standards-challenged mainstream press. The absence of a story or even an allegation is no obstacle here; the technique is simply to start a rumor that a story is about to appear.

It worked. By Friday morning, Kerry decided to answer a clear, direct question from Don Imus on his radio program. Asked if there was anything coming or anything to all this, anything at all, Kerry chose to be direct, unequivocal, and on the record: "There is nothing to report, nothing to say." The answer was No.

The chain of events from Moore in Clark's magnifying presence, through McAuliffe, to the past week's water torture sequence of partial disclosures is more complicated. The big difference is that both the irresponsible statements and the minute, new developments have all been taking place in public, based on what people have said and documents have shown.

In addition, Moore and McAullife notwithstanding, the president's decision to make blanket statements last weekend and the White House's impolitic decision to release selected records piecemeal have been much more important engines pulling the frustrating story along.

However, the impression fostered more in the press than in politics that the inevitable existence of questions and gaps permits inferences about the answers and about what might be in the gaps is just as pernicious. The fact remains that while Bush is on the record promising a full disclosure he has yet to make, no one has the right to assume the answers to questions for political purposes.

I suspect this campaign is too potentially close not to get ugly, which is regrettable. What is more regrettable, however, is that my business is more likely than not to be a willing participant in the ugliness -- again.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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