'Mistaken Identity' Claim Stirs Scandal

Maureen Dowd was accused of mistaking columnist for Michelle Obama.

Feb. 8, 2008 — -- It's the kind of scandal that has all the ingredients to get media types gossiping for days over their latte-stained laptops.

Just take two high-profile female newspaper columnists (one black and one white), add a case of mistaken identity, stir in the presidential campaign and some racial tension, and mix well.

It all started when Michelle Henery, a columnist for the Times of London, penned a story about her experience in the press room after last week's Democratic debate in Los Angeles.

Henery, who is African-American, wrote that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, "one of my journalistic heroes," approached her, "greeting me like a long-lost friend." Henery was flattered and shocked until "Maureen's sweet smile turned into embarrassed confusion and she scampered off."

The next day, Henery says she e-mailed her friends, who told her that Dowd must have confused her with Michelle Obama, the wife of presidential contender Barack Obama.

Henery was shocked, considering that Obama has "almost 15 years on me and more than 3 inches in height" and despaired about "how white America was going to elect a black man for president if they could not even tell us apart."

She joked that she'd confused redheaded Dowd for ginger-maned Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington.

Dowd has insisted that the incident never happened and said that she complained to the Times of London, which removed the column from its Web site, and, according to Dowd, is investigating her complaint.

"I've covered the Obamas for a year. I know what they look like," Dowd said to ABCNEWS.com in an e-mail. "I've covered eight presidential campaigns. I know that the candidate and spouse never go to the press room after a debate, so the idea that I mistook Ms. Henery for Mrs. Obama is ridiculous, and is, if you read her column, merely the uninformed speculation of her friends."

But the Times of London is standing by Henery, insisting that there is no internal inquiry.

"We absolutely stand by our writer Michelle Henery, and there is no inquiry," said spokeswoman Anoushka Healy.

That came as news to The New York Times, where a spokeswoman assumed that the British paper was conducting an inquiry. "With regard to Ms. Dowd's column, it was brought to the attention of the Times of London, and we are pleased they are taking it seriously," the spokeswoman e-mailed ABCNEWS.com.

A spokesperson for Michelle Obama declined to comment, explaining, "I think that story speaks for itself."

It's not the first time one of the Obamas has been mistaken for another African-American.

Last February, actor Will Smith told a crowd at the Motion Picture Association of America that he was once mistaken for Barack Obama. An elderly couple approached him and said, "We love what you're doing. You're so great for the country!" according to Smith.

After Smith thanked them and walked away, the man said, "And we'll be sure to vote for you."