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The "Manchurian Candidate" Fantasy: Paranoia And Irony Abound

11/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Raymond, why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?"

"He's ... an Arab." It's perhaps fitting that last week ended that way for John McCain -- face to face, embarrassingly, with an angry supporter sputtering about Barack Obama -- given that he began it with a speech playing to the deep swamp of fevered innuendo about Obama as a "Manchurian candidate" out to seize the presidency and take down America.

McCain, who a few months ago said that Obama is a patriotic American with whom he happens to disagree, began last week with a speech in which he said something very different: "I didn't just show up out of nowhere, after all. America knows me. . . . Even at this late hour in the campaign, there are essential things we don't know about Senator Obama or the record that he brings to this campaign."

Sean Hannity did an hour-long Fox News documentary last week on Obama as a potential Manchurian candidate. Ironically, The Manchurian Candidate was made as a sardonic indictment of the paranoid style of the far right.

That kicked off a tumultuous week in which McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, ran around claiming that Obama "pals around with terrorists," Team McCain launched scathing advertising tying Obama to ex-Weather Undergrounder Bill Ayers (making a few bizarre claims in the process), Fox's Sean Hannity ran an hour-long documentary about the purportedly shadowy radical Obama, and McCain and Palin addressed increasingly rowdy and angry crowds. Until by the end of the week, McCain had to tell one of his supporters that Obama is a good family man you don't have to fear if he becomes president. For which he was booed by the crowd. And finally, take the microphone away from another supporter so confused by the witches brew of "Manchurian candidate" stuff about Obama emanating from the far right that she thought "he's ... an Arab."

It's ironic it's come to this, because McCain himself was beaten for for the Republican nomination in 2000 by a campaign of vicious innuendo. And Hannity went all out to defeat him in the primaries this year.

But McCain is behind, the economy is hardly his strong suit, he's voted most of the time with the wildly unpopular President Bush, Palin has turned into the predictable major liability with swing voters, and he lost his first two debates to Obama, all of which I've explained throughout on my New West Notes.

So McCain and his team ended up playing with fire, proffering the Manchurian candidate card.

The Manchurian candidate ugliness began reaching critical mass over two years ago. That's when it became apparent that Obama could be the figure of the future in American politics.

But it dates back to just after Obama's famous keynote address at the 2004 Democratic national convention, when a strange fellow named Andy Martin sent out a press release claiming that Obama is really a secret Muslim.

Martin, as the New York Times reported, is a law school graduate. But he was denied admission to the Illinois bar in the '70s after a psychiatric diagnosis of "moderately severe character defect manifested by well-documented ideation with a paranoid flavor and a grandiose character."

Which hasn't stopped his, er, materials from being a principal jumping-off point for the Obama-as-Manchurian candidate campaign. After all, as the diagnosis noted, paranoia is the key. And there is plenty of paranoia on the fringe right.

Nor did it stop Martin, who, ironically, if not surprisingly, has been criticized for anti-semitic behavior, from featuring prominently in last week's big Sean Hannity "documentary" on Obama.

I don't know who first came up with the actual phrase that Obama is "the Manchurian candidate," but the ever appalling Ann Coulter has certainly batted the phrase around.

The viral e-mail campaign which circulated wild Manchurian candidate theories about Obama literally around the world seems to have kicked off in early 2006. It's not clear at this point that there's any particular center to it. Though the apparently prominent role of Los Angeles as a key node in the campaign is one reason why staunchly pro-Israel former LA Congressman Mel Levine (former son-in-law of the head of the Anti-Defamation League) and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, also of LA, formed a sort of truth squad to counter the incessant rumors that Obama is really out to help Iran and wreak havoc on Israel. Leading American Jewish organizations have denounced these "hateful e-mails."

Raymond Shaw's mother, played by Angela Lansbury, reveals the play.

It may be that, once begun, the Obama-as-Manchurian candidate fantasy became a conspiracy of the like-minded, of paranoid, angry folks eager to believe the worst about someone decidedly not like them.

The attacks, which include some virulently anti-Obama web sites but have been conducted mostly via anonymous e-mails, of course penetrated talk radio and the blogosphere and found receptive ears at Fox News. They put various elements into a pseudo-political mix-master: His schooling in Muslim Indonesia. His first name so similar to that of Osama bin Laden. (Signs at recent McCain/Palin rallies read "Obama Bin Lyin.") His middle name "Hussein," like that of Saddam Hussein. His former pastor Jeremiah Wright's fiery condemnations of America and seeming friendship with Louis Farrakhan. His opposition to the invasion of Iraq. His insistence on dialogue with Iran. What comes out of the mix-master is the notion that Obama is the Muslim Manchurian candidate.

Then things get even more baroque. Obama, it's said, really attended an anti-Western madrassa, a canard repeated on Fox News. (Debunked, but still repeated.) He's not really an American. The far right is still going on about Obama's birth certificate, with various navel-gazing theories. (Here it is, incidentally.)

Lately, there's been the notion that Obama secretly tried to alter Iraq policy to help Tony Rezko's secret Arab business partner. That Obama's record -setting online fundraising is really secretly funneled into America from the Middle East. Or that it is all being orchestrated by George Soros. Oh, and that Bill Ayers is the real author of Obama's first book, Dreams From My Father.

With all this stuff floating around, no wonder that poor woman at McCain's town hall Friday night was so extraordinarily addled.

Actually, the whole thing is addled, beginning with the "Manchurian candidate" concept itself. Obviously it's ginned up by people who don't know either the Frank Sinatra movie (directed by Robert F. Kennedy's great friend John Frankenheimer) or the Richard Condon novel.

The Manchurian Candidate is a famous novel-turned-movie. It's not about a youngish guy with a funny name out to become the first black president of the United States.

Because the Manchurian Candidate is really a former prisoner of war programmed by American's enemies during his captivity to bring them to power. As part of a Communist plot to assassinate the presidential front-runner and catapult a Joe McCarthy-like archconservative -- who is really part of the Communist plot -- into the White House.

Produced in 1962, The Manchurian Candidate is a darkly satirical view of far right politics in America. It was made with the encouragement of President John F. Kennedy, who was all too aware of the dangers of the paranoid style in American politics, starring his good friend Frank Sinatra, as Sinatra himself recounted in a 1988 documentary on the making of the film.

One of Manchurian Candidate director John Frankenheimer's ads for Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign.

Director John Frankenheimer went on to make another movie Kennedy wanted made called Seven Days In May, about a barely aborted right-wing military coup against a president out to negotiate a peace treaty with the Soviets.

Later on, Frankenheimer, a great friend of Robert F. Kennedy, made TV ads for Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. You can see one of them just above. Kennedy stayed in Frankenheimer's LA beach house the night before the pivotal California presidential primary, and it was Frankenheimer who drove him to the Ambassador Hotel, where he was assassinated just after winning the California primary.

So you see the extreme irony here.

The Manchurian Candidate was made to shine a light on the paranoid style of the far right in America.

And it has been seized on by the paranoid fringe of the right in America to stir up a witches brew of fear and anger. And project it against the first person of color to close within striking distance of the presidency, someone with a relatively exotic background and a name which nearly combines the names of two of America's biggest boogeymen of the modern era. Somone backed by the Kennedy family, which actually pushed for the making of the movie which popularized the very phrase, "Manchurian candidate."

There is a further irony, in that there actually is a candidate in this race who was not born in America and who was a prisoner of war. That would be, of course, John McCain, whose birth in what was then the Panama Canal Zone nonetheless does qualify him for the presidency.

John McCain is no Manchurian candidate, either.

What he is is someone who has played with fire -- including yesterday, when he again said that Obama is "the riskiest choice" in American history -- and gotten burned.