THE BLOG
12/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Campaign '08 -- The Rumor Mill

Now, it feels inevitable. That this was supposed to be the outcome. From the beginning, this election year looked like a variation of 1980, and that is what it ended as -- a souped-up, hyper-broadband-speed version.

But, within the election cycle, on a day-to-day basis, only one thing seemed certain -- the uncertainty. You couldn't have written a more constantly surprising, even thrilling, scenario.

But what did hold true throughout was that the campaign coverage seemed particularly susceptible to the power of rumors -- generally defined as stories too good to be true. The echo effect of the Internet only added to this.

Rumors about Sen. Barack Obama, or his wife, Michelle, or Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, or John or Cindy McCain would flood the zone. Or, to use a different metaphor, they would suck all the oxygen out of the room, diverting focus from the real story of this remarkable election.

There was one particularly viral rumor, involving a McGuffin videotape with Michelle Obama, that was like the undead. No matter how many silver stakes you tried to drive through its "whitey" heart, it kept coming back. Rumors like this survive, I suspect, because they feed a particular desire, fill a need, for a specific segment of society.

This one seemed so long-lived, and so potent, perhaps because it serviced two divergent groups. For me, it felt a bit like being trapped in The Manchurian Candidate -- the original version -- where both the left and the right were working together to destroy the middle. But there was no Frank Sinatra around to clear the air.

With this story, which kept morphing into ever more virulent versions -- the Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton camp probably loved telling it cause it justified all their efforts to stop Obama. At the same time, the GOP right-wing nurtured it probably because to fed into its worst fears about Obama. With so much interest in keeping this story aloft, how could I ever expect to bring it down to earth and kill it?

During the life of this strange Michelle Obama rumor, I kept thinking about a weird rumor involving a big movie star that had swept through Hollywood in the 1980s.

Now, this star had sex appeal to burn and the rumor had him showing up at a hospital emergency room because of a very specific sexual practice. I lived in L.A. at the time, running The Los Angeles Times Sunday "Opinion" section, and this was pretty much the talk of the town for a while. People became experts, even savants, about this peculiar sexual practice, which involved a sweet children's pet, a gerbil. There were somehow a related set of X-rays. Featuring this gerbil in a body cavity. Don't ask.

The rumor would die down for a while, and then reignite. Over the course of its life, I know that I talked to several people who claimed they had seen the X-rays of the movie star. Usually doctors, but sometimes a lawyer or a film industry executive insisted they had looked at them.

I remember one dinner party at my home, where a close friend of mine, a doctor, seated catty-corner from from me, insisted that he had, indeed, seen the X-rays. He was sitting at my table, looking me in the eye and, I felt, lying to me.

I pushed him for details -- how he had come to see it? Just walk me through the process, I said. It turned out that, well, actually, he had not seen them. But, his best friend, a doctor who supervised the ER, had. And that is why he felt comfortable saying he had as well.

Well as this Michelle Obama videotape story evolved, there were various people who said they had seen it. Or, rather, knew someone who had seen it. Or, better yet, knew someone who had a copy of it. Or had swiped a copy of it. But it all seemed to me like those long-ago X-rays. A story too good to be true.

Years ago, one astute media writer compared the still-nascent Internet to London when the Gutenberg press arrived in the 15th century. As the printing press became more and more common in London, he wrote, and many more broadsheets and pamphlets were produced, sightings of dragons moved further and further from the center of the city. The Internet, Epstein noted at that time, is filled with dragon-sightings.

So the Internet combined with political campaigns can be almost lethal.

Because beating back dark rumors have long been part of any election. Lyndon B. Johnson, who knew a thing or two about running a political campaign, had a sure-fire way of dealing with this long before there even was something called the Web. There are several variations on this story, but I will tell the one I like best since, after all, this is a piece about rumor.

Early in his Senate career, the story goes, whenever he was running for office, Johnson would put aside a chunk of money -- something like five grand. He called it his "pig-fucking money." This, he would explain in his Texas twang, was a key expenditure. Because when your opponent comes out with the charge, say, three days before the vote, that you fuck pigs, Johnson said, you have to have the money in hand to pay for the ads that say, "I don't fuck pigs."

The thing is that the Internet is not only one cause of this rumor problem. It can also be the solution. Now, pig-fucking money is the equivalent of a strong day of Web traffic!