POLITICS, as they say, ain't beanbag. Unfair accusations have been lobbed in the heat of presidential campaigns for as long as presidential campaigns have been heated. In 1796, historian Paul Boller records, John Adams was denounced by Thomas Jefferson's partisans as "an avowed friend of monarchy," who intended to make his sons "Lords of this country." Adams's Federalist followers called Jefferson a "Franco-maniac" favored by "cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin."
The current presidential contest has not - so far - generated any charges of secret monarchism or Francomania. Bum raps and low blows, however, have not been lacking.
The latest took flight when retired Air Force General Merrill McPeak, a military adviser to Barack Obama, hauled out the M-word and fired it at former president Bill Clinton.
"I was going to college when Joe McCarthy was accusing good Americans of being traitors," McPeak said, "so I've had enough of it." What had Clinton done? He had told a veterans' group in Charlotte, N.C., that "it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people" - meaning his wife and Republican John McCain - "who love this country and were devoted to the interests of the country."
That, McPeak charged, was an assault on Obama's patriotism. "I'm saddened to see a president employ this kind of tactic. He of all people should know better." Actually, McPeak should know better than to wrench a sentence out of context and give it a spin its speaker never intended.
I will stipulate that Bill Clinton's record is replete with offenses political and otherwise, as many of these columns have documented. But this is one indictment he doesn't deserve.
Clinton's comment came in the midst of remarks that had nothing to do with Obama. He had been discussing his wife's electability, and envisioning a November matchup between her and McCain. "It won't be an easy race," he said, recalling McCain's Vietnam heroism. While Hillary and McCain "have big disagreements" on some issues, he continued, they have worked together on others, and "that's the kind of leadership this country needs."
It was then that he observed that it would be great to have an election between two such people "who love this country and were devoted to the interests of this country . . . instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics." Watch the video of Clinton's remarks; there is no way to interpret them as a dig at Obama, let alone a McCarthyist swipe at his patriotism.
Earlier this month, much was made by reporters and commentators of Hillary Clinton's reply when asked on "60 Minutes" whether she believed that Obama is a Muslim. "No," she said, "there's nothing to base that on, as far as I know." Those five words - as far as I know - were roundly denounced in the media as a sly stoking of the false rumor about Obama's faith. It was condemned as "one of the sleaziest moments of the campaign to date," as a "slimy" insinuation, as "foul play," as innuendo that was "Machiavellian" and "positively Nixonian."
But again: Nobody watching the full exchange can believe that Clinton was somehow craftily hinting that Obama is Muslim. Indeed, if anyone was doing that, it was CBS's Steve Kroft, who pressed the issue not once ("You don't believe that Senator Obama is a Muslim?"), not twice ("You'd take Senator Obama at his word that he's not a Muslim?"), but three times ("You don't believe that he's a Muslim?"). Hillary, frustrated by Kroft's refusal to drop the subject, clearly denied the rumor not once ("of course not"), not twice ("there is no basis for that"), not three times ("I take him on the basis of what he says, and there isn't any reason to doubt that"), but at least four times ("No, no . . . No, there's nothing to base that on, as far as I know").
The technology that makes it easier than ever to propound groundless gotchas also makes it easier to convincingly refute them. A calumny isn't true just because it's been reported, and no one deserves to be the victim of drive-by defamation. Not even the politicians so many of us love to loathe.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.