Panic is never pretty, and it leads men to say foolish things — even presidents and their friends and flunkies. The wicked flee when none pursue, but sometimes they flee when facts are gaining on them.
Harry Reid, the leader of the Democratic majority in the Senate, should know better than to make up stuff that won’t stand scrutiny, panic or not. His tall tale about how Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years blew up under scrutiny, and when the tale exploded in the face of the Las Vegas boodle man, the president suffered the collateral damage.
The Obama campaign tried to wash its hands, Pontius Pilate-like, of that campaign commercial featuring Joe Soptic, a laid-off steelworker, telling how his wife died of cancer because Mr. Romney’s Bain Capital closed a bankrupt Kansas City steel mill in 2001 and left his family without health insurance.
The steelworker’s heartbreaking story, as told in the ad put up by an “independent” campaign group called Priorities USA, doesn’t stand close scrutiny, either. But it was briefly effective, which is all that counts when it’s panic time.
The Obama campaign naturally denies any and all responsibility. This is the usual first response of the guilty. “We have nothing, no involvement, with any ads that are done by Priorities USA,” an Obama spokesman told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday. “We don’t have any knowledge of the story of the [steelworker’s] family.” The Obama deputy campaign manager repeated the assurance to CNN: “I don’t know the facts about when Mr. Soptic’s wife got sick, or the facts about his health insurance.”
That sounds pretty unequivocal, but this was soon overtaken by the facts. Politico reported that the Obama campaign had hosted a conference call on May 14, only three months ago, featuring Mr. Soptic telling his sad story that after he lost his job in 2001 he had no health insurance until he found a job as a janitor, but there were no health benefits for his wife. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer he had to put her in the county hospital. When she died “all I got was an enormous bill. It’s upsetting what Mitt Romney and his partners did to us.” (Has anyone got a rope? Let’s get Mitt and find a tree with a low-hanging limb.)
As sad as the story was, from President Obama’s perspective it was too good to be true. Mr. Soptic’s wife had health insurance all the time through her own employer until 2003, when she was injured and could no longer work. That’s when she lost her insurance. Still a sad story, but nothing like the story the White House put out in May, and Priorities USA repeated in August.
This was only a little better than Mr. Reid’s confection, which was made up entirely. The senator cited as his source “a man” at Bain Capital — a source no better than “a friend’s ex-wife’s yard man’s sister-in-law.” The White House denied any knowledge of the Reid fantasia, too, and chided reporters for asking about it.
Dirty tricks are old stuff, of course, but the explosion of whistleblowers and fact-checkers on the Internet have rendered it all but impossible to keep a campaign lie alive.
Nevertheless, politicians are born with the urge to tell whoppers in the spirit of Lyndon B. Johnson. In a torrid Texas race years ago LBJ told an aide to put out the story that his opponent was once caught taking sexual liberties with a pig. “But that’s not true,” the offended aide (maybe it was the Rev. Billy Don Moyers) replied. “I know it’s not true,” LBJ said, “but let him deny it.”
A famous reckless lie was told by another senator in Wheeling, W.Va., in February 1950, when he pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and told the ladies of the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling: “I have here in my hand a list of 57 names that were made known to the secretary of state as members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” With that Sen. Joe McCarthy was off and running in his hunt for Communists in the government. Unlike Harry Reid, Mr. McCarthy was eventually proved to be only 95 percent wrong.
Barack Obama is trying to stand above the action in the gutter, not necessarily because he wants to preserve the honor and dignity of office, but because it wouldn’t look good for everyone to see him sweat in August. That’s panic for late October.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.