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Obama's and Clinton's Bumpy Ride Begins

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON-"A lie can travel halfway around the world," Mark Twain is said to have said, "while the truth is putting on its shoes." What an optimist he was. In this Internet age, lies go around the globe many times before the truth can even find its shoes.

Just ask Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. Even as Illinois' rising superstar senator announced his White House bid just after Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, an anti-Obama smear campaign was percolating in cyberspace and popping up in countless e-mail boxes, including mine.

And by the time the former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton announced her presidential bid Saturday, the Obama rumor had taken on new legs in the mainstream media, thanks to an unfounded accusation linking the rumor to "the Hillary Clinton camp."

The Web site of the conservative magazine Insight alleged that Democrats "connected" to the New York senator had discovered that Obama had studied at a "madrassa," a Muslim religious school, for four years while living in Indonesia as a kid and doesn't want anyone to know about it. Besides its incendiary implications of anti-Muslim paranoia, the allegation of an Obama cover-up and the Clinton outing is simply wrong, wrong and wrong.

First, Obama was not secretly educated in a radical Islamic school when he was growing up in Indonesia. That was confirmed Monday by CNN senior correspondent John Vause, reporting from Jakarta. With pictures and interviews that include one of young "Barry" (his childhood nickname) Obama's classmates, Vause found the Sekolah Dasar Negeri 04 Besuki is not and never was a madrassa. It is a secular public school attended mostly by Muslims.

That's not surprising, since Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country. Yet, about a fourth of the enrollment was non-Muslim when Obama attended the school, as it is now. Children and teachers wear conventional Western dress, not Eastern religious garb, and theology is found only in a weekly class in comparative religions.

Insight also said Obama's political rivals "are seeking to prove" that the school promoted Wahhabism, a fundamentalism that fuels many Islamic terrorists. But Vause observed on CNN that "I've been to those madrassas in Pakistan ... this school is nothing like that."

Yet, no matter how many facts you dig up, truth has a tough time standing up to a juicy rumor. By the time CNN debunked the unfounded allegations, they had been repeated on Fox News, the New York Post, the Glenn Beck program on CNN Headline News and other outlets. To hear some of the chatter, you would have thought Clinton's campaign had all but outed Obama as an al Qaeda agent.

Welcome to the big leagues, senators. Whisper campaigns are a sad reality of politics. Sen. John McCain knows. Vicious rumors that were traced back to the George W. Bush camp helped undo McCain's momentum in South Carolina's critical Republican primary campaign in 2000.

Unlike past campaigns, the Internet age only deepens the targeted candidate's dilemma: If you deny rumors that are just bubbling around cyberspace, that public denial makes them more newsworthy in the mainstream media. Sen. John Kerry learned that in 2004 when his candid denials on Don Imus's radio show of rumored hanky-panky with a young female staffer ("There's nothing to it") actually helped spread the unfounded rumor. The rumor was not sufficiently newsworthy for the New York Times and others to report, but Kerry's response to it was.

However, if you don't respond, you the risk the corrosive effect that unanswered charges can have on your campaign. Kerry, again, offered an excellent example by failing to respond to attack ads by Swift Boat veterans for more than two weeks.

And Mrs. Clinton's no political patsy. Although quite a few Democrats sound nervous about her vulnerabilities, one of her strengths as a campaigner is her experience, along with her ex-president husband, at weathering political storms. Obama's just beginning to learn.

Worse is yet to come. If one can be condemned by faint praise, Obama should feel praised so far by faint condemnation. If empty rumors are the worst his enemies can come up with in their desperate attempts to chip away at his amazingly pristine image, he's doing remarkably well. But, to paraphrase Betty Davis in "All About Eve," fasten your seatbelt, senator, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

And, with this much mud-slinging two years before the first primary and caucus votes are cast, this contest will be a big test not only for the candidates, but also for the rest of us. There's lots of speculation going on about whether we Americans are ready to elect a black president or a woman president. But, the real question is whether we Americans are ready to be fair to all candidates, despite the spin doctors, mud-slingers and rumor mongers who betray our hopes and play on our fears.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) By The Chicago Tribune | Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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