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Originally published Saturday, November 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Top rumors of presidential campaign - and reality

When John McCain and Barack Obama started running for president in 2007, they were two of the most universally liked and respected politicians in America — men who even members of the opposite party saw as decent, unifying characters — and neither inspired much loathing. That was then.

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The Web site was launched in January 2007. With 4.6 million unique visitors and 57.5 million page views in September, according to Nielsen data, Politico has quickly become a major source for coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign. According to its mission statement, Politico also is devoted to Capitol Hill, lobbying and advocacy issues.

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When John McCain and Barack Obama started running for president in 2007, they were two of the most universally liked and respected politicians in America — men who even members of the opposite party saw as decent, unifying characters — and neither inspired much loathing.

That was then.

Now, partisans deluge reporters and editors with e-mails and vent on blogs about why the media is suppressing stories about one candidate or the other.

The unwritten Obama stories supposedly concern his Americanness: They raise doubts about his birth, his citizenship and his patriotism. The unpenned anti-McCain stories go to the quality he's made central to his career: honor. They suggest that he's used foul language to his wife and that his military record isn't what it seems.

Why hasn't Politico and the rest of the media reported on these stories? Well, some we're working on. But in many other cases, the stories were debunked, or there simply was no evidence for the claims.

These should be distinguished from partisan reporting that partisans wish had more political bite: National Review's attacks on the educational philosophy behind the Annenberg Challenge, for instance, or The Nation's reporting on McCain's ties to a Russian oligarch. The demands that the Los Angeles Times release a video that it wrote about several months ago also come in a different category, though the underlying theory — that the Los Angeles Times missed, or concealed, some explosive element when it broke the story of the tape — is driven by some of the same longing for political kryptonite.

And the e-mails keep coming, under headings such as: "Please research this;" "A tip for you," and "WHY ISN'T POLITICO COVERING THIS STORY???"

Obama is the subject of a far greater volume of these e-mails: up to 20-to-1 concern the Democratic nominee, said Brooks Jackson, director of the nonpartisan Factcheck.org.

And they come in waves.

"Whenever Obama builds a lead, that's when you hear a new one," said Reason Magazine writer David Weigel, who labored most in the vineyards of the fringe this cycle. "The calmest period for this stuff was the two weeks when McCain was ahead in the polls."

The stories, he said, capture "a fear of the other that is given form in ways that most terrify the people who make this stuff up."

And whichever candidate wins, these campaign-trail rumors will haunt his presidency; just ask Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

In times gone by, the media could have chosen to ignore these stories, comfortable in the knowledge that most readers would never learn of them. Now they're widespread, despite having been ignored by the media — or, perhaps, because of it.

"It's an outdated conceit to think that by not talking about things, we can keep them outside the public discourse," said Factcheck.org's Jackson, whose site has delved into some of these rumors. "That used to be true back when there were gates to keep and fences, too, but now, golly, these things can be so powerful."

And so here, without further ado, is a roundup of some of the best-known stories we haven't written, and why:

OBAMA'S CITIZENSHIP

Probably the most widely e-mailed Obama "tip" at the moment alleges that he isn't a natural-born U.S. citizen and thus isn't eligible to run for president. This began in the die-hard pro-Hillary Rodham Clinton section of the blogosphere, which spent part of the summer discussing laws that deal with the citizenship of a child with one American parent born abroad. When it emerged that this challenge wouldn't hold water if Obama had been born in the United States, the focus shifted to the allegation that he had been born outside the United States.

In August, a Pennsylvania lawyer, Philip Berg, filed suit in federal court in Philadelphia. Berg, who also has been active in arguing that there was "government complicity" in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, demanded that the court force Obama to produce his original birth certificate. The court dismissed the lawsuit.

So why isn't this getting wide coverage? First, there's lots of evidence that Obama was born in the United States, and none that he wasn't. The campaign handed over an official copy of his short-form birth certificate — the standard document produced by the Hawaii Department of Health — to Factcheck.org. And Politico has confirmed the authenticity of a contemporaneous announcement of his birth in The Honolulu Advertiser, Hawaii's largest newspaper.

Berg fights on, though, on a Web site with supporters known as ChileMan, ChileWoman and MommaERadioRebels. He recently told conservative talk-radio host Michael Savage that he has an audiotape of Obama's Kenyan grandmother recalling the candidate's birth in a Kenyan hospital.

"l'll release it in a day or two," he said a week ago.

THE C-WORD

Perhaps the most widely circulated and persistent anti-McCain story asserts that, in 1992, he directed a particularly taboo slur at his wife, Cindy.

The story made it into publications from Vanity Fair to The Huffington Post, but — to the frustration of Obama partisans — it never has been reported as fact.

The story has its origin in a book, "The Real McCain," by Cliff Schecter, a Democratic political consultant. He cites as sources three Arizona reporters who heard the exchange on the campaign trail in 1992, all quoted anonymously. Schecter, in an interview, suggested news outlets refused to deal with the story because of their reluctance to use the crude anatomical term, a notion that was satirized in a YouTube comedy seen by 600,000 people.

There is, however, another, more basic problem: Reporters have been unable to replicate Schecter's sourcing.

"They're all very scared," Schecter said of his sources.

And in the absence of confirmation, a story told by an opposing-party operative, without backup, isn't likely to make the mainstream, no matter what word it uses.

THE MICHELLE TAPES

Obama's grandmother isn't the only relative beset by a phantom tape. The most famous of these is the "whitey tape," which some Clinton aides thought would save her campaign and which remains alive in the imaginations of Obama-haters. According to a rumor driven hardest by former CIA operative Larry Johnson, the tape featured Obama's wife, Michelle, saying nasty things about white people and using the word "whitey."

The story was debunked in June, when Reason's Weigel noticed that Johnson kept changing the description of his sources. But the rumors grew so noisy that later that month, Michelle Obama denied directly to The New York Times that she'd ever used the word.

Did that — or the fact that the tape simply hasn't materialized — end the controversy? Sort of, says this reporter's e-mail inbox. No sooner had the "whitey" tape vanished than another phantom tape — allegedly recording Mrs. Obama ranting about "white racists" — surfaced on a blog identifying itself as an African news agency run from Norway that reported, repeatedly, that it is in negotiations with Fox News to air the tape "imminently."

A Fox spokeswoman, Diana Rocco, forwarded a statement from the network calling the claim "absolutely false."

More recently, the blog attributed delays in airing the tape to threats and bribes, and asserted it was in contact with the U.S. Embassy in Oslo to sort things out.

"The Embassy is not involved in any activity or investigation as described in this article and has no further information on the matter," an embassy official, Marit Andersen, said in an e-mail.

THE FORRESTAL

The volume of McCain rumors is lower, but another entire genre has to do with his military service, the core of his biography. These unwritten stories key on an article in the Los Angeles Times finding that McCain, a self-described "daredevil," was blamed by the Navy for causing a crash that he'd attributed elsewhere to engine failure.

But liberal partisans have blamed McCain for crashing as many as five planes, including one that supposedly led to the 1967 disaster on the USS Forrestal, where an explosion killed 134 sailors. McCain's plane was among those consumed by flames, and a historian of the crash wrote that he "narrowly escaped death."

According to the claim, McCain could have started the fire by engaging in a risky maneuver called a "wet start," in which a pilot leaves fuel on the deck to flame behind him when he takes off.

Factcheck.org, which examined the story in great detail, found otherwise. None of the contemporaneous investigations even suggested McCain could have played a role, and diagrams showed his plane pointing in the wrong direction to have caused the disaster.

ODINGA

A third popular Obama "tip" has to do with Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister and former opposition leader who claimed that Obama was a distant cousin.

The reports surfaced after a political crisis in Kenya in which many international observers believed the vote was stolen from Odinga. As the international community rallied behind the opposition, Obama spoke to Odinga briefly on the telephone.

The media has ignored stories about the relationship between the two men because there's no real evidence that one exists. But the story suggests that Obama campaigned for Odinga and funneled money to his campaign and that they're close allies. The story also subjects Odinga to the same sort of rumor that afflicts Obama: that despite Odinga's professed Christian faith (the Kenyan prime minister is an Anglican), the two men are conspiring to institute Muslim law ... in Kenya.

A range of officials has denied almost every detail of the rumor, and the story more or less debunked itself in October when anti-Obama writer Jerome Corsi released an e-mail purporting to be a message from Obama to the Odinga camp.

The problem: The e-mail clearly was not written by a native English speaker.

HOLIDAY IN FIJI

A widely circulated e-mail, forwarded innumerable times to many reporters, contains a long, first-person narrative of McCain behaving extremely badly on a holiday to Fiji before his first run for president, insulting his fellow vacationers with a range of behaviors, the mildest of which was insisting that they listen to him read aloud from the works of William Faulkner.

The e-mail came with the telephone number and name of a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and McCain's foes urged reporters to call her. But, as the urban-legends clearinghouse Snopes reported, the professor hadn't written the e-mail; she only forwarded it.

Another woman's name has since been attached to the e-mail; she has not responded to Politico's calls. And even the editor of the left-wing newsletter CounterPunch had second thoughts about the story.

"We posted it and then pulled it off after two hours," said CounterPunch editor Alexander Cockburn. "There seemed to be enough intimations that it's a phony.

"Every time we got the story, there seemed to be one degree of separation from [the apparent author], and then she got into seclusion and we couldn't find her."

Cockburn also said details of the story rang false.

"Faulkner was a huge problem," he said. "Hemingway, yes. But would he really read Faulkner?"

Avi Zenilman, David Paul Kuhn, Kenneth P. Vogel and Charles Mahtesian contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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