One of the nastier elements of local politics is the frequency with which rumors and smear campaigns play a role in elections. And one of the challenges for national candidates–especially for the presidency–is to contain the amplification of those whisper campaigns when they inevitably hit the pages of the country’s political gossip sites.
Though not officially in the race yet, Rick Perry is already finding himself confronted with exactly those types of smears. First was the rumor Perry is gay–pushed by Democratic opponents in Texas but rebroadcast in a Politico story in June. It turned out the unnamed source for the story might have been a liberal anti-Perry activist who has a history of targeting Perry with false accusations. Now comes a second story about Perry’s past that opponents are once again hoping will gain traction.
The story centers on Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man who was tried and convicted of killing his children by setting fire to their house. He was executed for the crime, but post-trial examinations of the evidence show him to have been almost certainly innocent. Despite that, a 15-member Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Willingham’s request for clemency just days before he was executed.
Challenging the conviction and execution of Willingham is reasonable and constructive, both for the sense of justice and for the lessons to be learned for similar cases in the future. While this is decidedly not a smear itself, one publication led its readers to believe Perry had bragged about the execution of an innocent man–a false and particularly vicious smear. Yesterday, The New Republic tweeted:
Words that should stick with #RickPerry for the rest of his political life: “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”
The obvious implication of the tweet was that Perry had said those words. And indeed, for all those who saw the tweet but didn’t go to the magazine’s website or dig any further, that would have been the takeaway. The New Republic directed readers to its own blog post quoting and reframing the original story, also using that quote as the headline of the post. It is when the blog post quotes the original story that we get a more accurate picture of what happened.
During the 2010 Texas governor’s race, Perry’s rival Kay Bailey Hutchison had asked a focus group about the Willingham case to see if they could exploit the issue to damage Perry, who was governor at the time of Willingham’s execution. The quote is apparently what Hutchison’s campaign claimed one of the citizens in the focus group said when told Willingham may have been innocent of the charges. The blog post accused Perry of being “essentially an accessory to murder” and said this demonstrates how “morally demented” the Texas political culture is around Perry–based on one quote, by one person with no association with Perry, passed along by Perry’s rival.
The smear campaign has one advantage for Perry, though: it’s happening so early in the process, his opponents may be out of ammunition by the time the contest really heats up.