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Anatomy of a Smear

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Not a presidential election goes by without producing another prize specimen for my extensive collection of Famous Smears I Have Known, and this year's campaign is no different. It's a red-white-and-blue, dadgum all-American tradition, telling whoppers about the opposition. It goes back at least to 1800 and the Adams-Jefferson match.

Yes, somewhere among the faux presidential scandals of the past, there are real scandals like Teapot Dome and Watergate. Or, in more recent years, L'Affaire Lewinsky. But for the most part, accusing a presidential candidate of something he never did has become just an empty ritual for the quadrennial madness known as an American presidential campaign.

Near the top of the long list of scandals that weren't is Dan Rather's "fake but accurate" exposé of George W. Bush in 2004 as some kind of draft dodger. That charge mainly exposed Dan Rather as the fake, and would soon enough lead to his becoming an ex-anchorman of a national news show.

But there are some close runners-up on this dishonor roll, like the recurrent charge that the current president of the United States isn't native-born but actually hails from Kenya, or maybe Indonesia, or your choice of a foreign land or foreign conspiracy. Which would render his presidency unconstitutional. No matter how many times such a claim has been disproved, or how many certified copies of his birth certificate he's produced, that tale continues to attract true believers.

Also true hucksters like the inimitable (thank goodness) Donald John Trump, financier, impresario, blowhard and maybe the greatest all-around, all-American showman since P.T. Barnum.

Some smears even add new verbs to the always changing American language -- like swiftboating for tarring an opponent, a term that owes its origins to the 2004 campaign to discredit John Kerry's war record. Great year for smears, 2004.

It doesn't even have to be an election year for conspiracy theories to take wing. Dwight Eisenhower, if you'll recall, was a "dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy," to quote that most peccable of sources, Robert Welch of the John Birch Society, which may still be around in some suburban storefront. Hey, what a country.

This year's prize whopper has already appeared, though the presidential campaign is still young. It's become an article of faith for the Obama camp. It has to depend on faith since there's no real evidence for it. But by now it's been supported by the president himself, who's made himself a kind of accessory after the (absence of) fact.

The essence of this accusation? It's that Mitt Romney, the Republicans' presidential nominee-in-waiting, was lying when he swore he gave up managing Bain Capital when he left early in 1999 to save the Salt Lake City Olympics. And therefore he's responsible for any and all of Bain's purported misdeeds after that -- like saving Staples and many another corporation in trouble. But no need for his critics to go into all that. Why let mere facts get in the way of a good story?

To back up this story, the president's operatives -- in the great fake-but-accurate tradition of Dan Rather, have produced ... Documents!

Documents that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that official filings list Mr. Romney as -- ta-da! -- managing director of Bain for some time after he left. And what's a managing director do if not manage? Q.E.D.!

It's a sleight-of-word trick, since the essential question isn't what title Mr. Romney retained while his company was looking for a successor but whether he was actively managing Bain during that time. He wasn't. And despite all the smoke and mirrors, there's not a shred of proof he was.

That little detail hasn't discouraged Mitt Romney's more vociferous critics, who keep waving that title of managing director around. And claming that his sworn statements about still being director of the company after 1999 was a lie, which would also make it a felony under federal law (18 USC 1001).

By now a former if impeached president has joined the current one in raising questions about Mr. Romney's veracity. Bill Clinton actually has some standing in this debate, since he's something of an expert at the art and practice of swearing falsely under oath. Which is one of the delicious little ironies of this campaign of character assassination.

Other exercises in irony are doubtless to come, like Barack Obama's assuring the country that the "private sector is doing fine." As if he ever had any connection with the private sector except to tax it and dismiss its more successful exemplars. ("If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen....")

As for this latest accusation against Mitt Romney, any fair-minded observer who examines the evidence for it will have to conclude that there isn't any. Not any that will hold up.

For example: FactCheck.Org, which is scarcely a Republican mouthpiece, looked at the Obama campaign's "facts" and concluded, to quote its scholarly response to Team Obama: "Your complaint is all wet."

And when the Obama people re-issued their smear with new citations, FactCheck examined them, too, and reached the same conclusion. To quote that great political commentator Gertrude Stein, there's no there there.

Nor is FactCheck alone. The fact checkers on this story are legion, and just about unanimous:

Fortune magazine's Dan Primack, who covers Wall Street deals and dealmakers, found that "contemporaneous Bain documents show that Romney was indeed telling the truth about no longer having operational input."

After three days of hearings, an official bipartisan election commission in Massachusetts reached the same conclusion in 2002, when Mitt Romney ran for governor of that state.

Here's the word from the Washington Post's fact checker, Glenn Kessler, on the Obama campaign's accusation: "Just because you are listed as an owner of shares does not mean you have a managerial role."

Brendan Nyhan of the Columbia Journalism Review reached pretty much the same conclusion: "[T]he specific cases cited by the Obama campaign largely concern actions taken by those companies during a period in which Romney was not making operational decisions at the firm. Journalists must be clear about this distinction."

Devin Dwyer of ABC News looked at this now rapidly aging smear and summed it up this way: "Team Obama does not provide any specific evidence to back up claims that Romney was actively managing Bain between 1999 and 2002."

But old smears never die, they just fade away. And some folks will believe them to the end. Or as Groucho Marx might have put it, "Who you gonna believe, the Obama campaign or your lyin' eyes?"

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