Political Pundits on How to Win the White House

CNBC, MSNBC, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer -- all of them, and lots of others, did Botox stories. Dean, then ?ghting vainly for a comeback, made a public gibe. The former Vermont governor, who had hardly concealed his dislike for Kerry, laughed aloud in conversations with reporters about the Botox rumor. You know it's true, he roared, throwing his head back in mirth. By March, even Vice President Dick Cheney was joining in the fun. At the Gridiron Dinner, an annual gathering of the Washington Establishment, he joked that the administration had dispatched weapons inspectors to "search for the bio-warfare agents we believe are hidden in Senator Kerry's forehead."

Another Drudge-driven story was not such a laughing matter. On February 12, the Drudge Report posted a "World Exclusive" stating various news outlets were investigating suspicions that Kerry had had an affair with a young woman, and that she had "?ed the country, reportedly at the prodding of Kerry." Drudge wrote, accurately, that rival candidate Wes Clark had earlier told reporters, in an off-the-record session, that he believed Kerry's campaign would "implode over an intern issue." (Trade Secret for candidates: Make sure journalists you are speaking with have the same understanding of "off the record" as you do.)

In an earlier era -- after Gary Hart but before Monica Lewinsky -- rumors about a Kerry affair would have prompted editors and producers to hold lengthy, brooding meetings about what to do with the information. These discussions would drag on inconclusively for weeks or months. Reporters would be dispatched to investigate discreetly, and perhaps confront the campaign with the suspicions, but perhaps no story would run, even if the rumor proved true. This essentially took place in 1996 at the Washington Post, where editors debated how to handle the account of Bob Dole's affair in the 1960s, before ?nally tucking it in a story buried inside the paper.

Kerry's rumored dalliance, as with all such stories in the Internet Age, unfolded in real time. It soon was known to every American with a modem and a discernible interest in politics. On cue, Limbaugh devoted the ?rst hour of his show to the story. Kerry, meanwhile, kept a previous appointment on the Don Imus radio program and, when pressed, said only, "There is nothing more to report." Later in the day he was more emphatic: "It's untrue, period." The denial was widely reported, earning a few lines from ABC's Peter Jennings on that evening's World News Tonight. From Africa, the woman in question, journalist Alexandra Polier, also issued a denial. Polier later traced the story to its apparent source: a former high school acquaintance who was aware that Kerry and Polier had once shared dinner after meeting at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and had wrongly assumed a romance. Polier theorized that the gossiping friend told her boss, who happened to be Republican lobbyist Bill Jarrell. He allegedly gabbed to others, and a rumor was born.

After the denials, the affair story quickly faded, if only because there was no oxygen, in the form of new details, to feed it. The news organizations Drudge claimed were working on the story never published a word about the alleged facts of the accusation, only about Kerry's denials. But at least some damage had been done to Kerry's image, set off by whoever gave the initial tip to Drudge.

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