I began by calling political reporters and strategists, who told me that as early as the New Hampshire primary, on January 27, two weeks before the story appeared on Drudge, there had been rumors swirling that Kerry had an intern problem. “We shook the tree,” says one reporter, who spent three weeks reporting it for The Hill only to come up empty-handed. “A bunch of names fell out, and yours had the most flesh to it.”
I had assumed that the story, like much of the initial reporting, was part of a Republican dirty-tricks campaign to break Kerry’s momentum. The attacks on Bill Clinton had worked (but of course, those had been true). So why not take Kerry down the same way? By the time Drudge broke the story, Kerry had won twelve of fourteen states, conceding only South Carolina to John Edwards and Oklahoma to Wesley Clark. As the press started to report the rumor, Kerry also seemed to be under the impression that he was a victim of the right. Speaking in Nevada at a Democratic function on February 14, he declared, “I promise you that when the Republican smear machine trots out the same old attacks in this election, this is one Democrat who will fight back. I fought for my country my entire life and I’m not about to back down now.”
The military analogy was apt. In early February, Bush was taking a major battering over stories that he had never reported for National Guard duty. The media needed distracting, and courtesy of Drudge, they found me. Rush Limbaugh spent the first hour of his program discussing Kerry’s “affair” with his 10 million listeners. Dozens of conservative commentators followed suit. “The John Kerry campaign has just been rocked by the scandal that people who knew John Kerry have been quietly predicting for months,” opined David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, on The National Review’s Website. “Now we know why Teresa Heinz was reluctant to bankroll her husband’s campaign.”
Damning stuff, except that Frum was merely working with the rumors that everyone else was spreading around. That’s how opinion culture has evolved, and it’s been enabled by the Internet. Who cares if you’re wrong? As it happens, Frum says he does.
“I regret it,” he says now. “I read it in the paper, I heard it gossiped about, but I didn’t do anything like reporting. I joked about it on the Internet in a way I would at dinner. Then I learned the Net is like print, not like dinner.”
As I began to trace the rumor, I learned that the vaguer it was, the easier it was to spread. Without a specific intern’s name attached, the story was initially impossible to disprove, something Rick Davis, the manager of Senator John McCain’s 2000 campaign, remembers well from his time fielding rumors that McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock. In fact, McCain had adopted a Bangladeshi baby. In an episode that presaged the Kerry story, a professor at Bob Jones University had sent out an e-mail to thousands of people claiming McCain had “chosen to sire children without marriage.”
“When the media asked what evidence the professor had,” says Davis, “he said McCain had to prove that he didn’t. Wow! How do you deal with that?”
I began by calling political reporters and strategists. “We shook the tree,” says one reporter, who spent three weeks reporting it only to come up empty-handed. “A bunch of names fell out, and yours had the most flesh to it.”
Politics was like a scary game of telephone. During the last election, people had discussed rumors that Bush had taken cocaine, a not entirely illogical jump from his wild days with alcohol. This time, Kerry’s dating record between marriages might have led people to assume he’d be up for an affair.
As I continued to dig, it occurred to me that Bush wasn’t the only one with a motive. Clark, Dean, and Edwards all stood to gain if Kerry imploded. “This story played into so many agendas, everyone wanted it to be true,” says one reporter who covered the Clark campaign.
“The story immediately changed the mood of the race,” says USA Today’s political columnist, Walter Shapiro. “In both the Dean and Edwards campaigns, there was a hope and an intense curiosity: Could this be true? Is there something out there that will save us?” The night after the Drudge posting, a reporter on MSNBC’s Hardball said that, even after his spectacular losses, Dean was staying in the race in case the Kerry campaign “implodes.”
I started calling around the campaigns to see what role they might have had in spreading the lie. “We didn’t know anything,” Sarah Leonard, Dean’s campaign spokeswoman, recalls. “We’d heard the rumors since New Hampshire, but we were just as surprised to see it on Drudge as you were. By Wisconsin, it was all over the local radio stations, it was all anyone could talk about. We were all rushing to Drudge every fifteen minutes for the update.”
One of Dean’s pollsters, Ben Tulchin, says, “We were passive participants. The only way we could benefit is, ‘Okay, if Kerry gets taken out, how could we pick up the pieces?’ Our discussions at the time were, ‘Stand back, don’t touch it, don’t get near it, and if we benefited, great.’ ” In fact, Dean didn’t benefit from the rumors; neither did Kerry. Still, though Kerry carried Wisconsin on February 17, his numbers were much lower than expected. On Hardball, Chris Matthews told viewers, “Blame Drudge.”
As I continued to try to understand what had happened, I found that shortly after his first story, Drudge had posted a leaked private e-mail from Craig Crawford, a political columnist at The Congressional Quarterly, to some colleagues at MSNBC: “Drudge item on Kerry intern issue is something Chris Lehane has shopped around for a long time.” Drudge quickly dropped the posting, and Lehane complained to Crawford that it wasn’t true, but Lehane’s name was familiar to me. I knew he was feared by rival campaigns as a master of the black art of leaking political-opposition research. A former spokesman for the Kerry campaign, he had quit amid some acrimony and gone to work as a strategist for Clark.
He was a sufficiently controversial figure to have earned his own recent profile in the New York Times, in which he was described by some as a “devious communications strategist.” The piece quoted rival politicos complaining that it was one thing to attack Republicans but quite another to attack rival Democrats, “spilling blood in our house.” I wondered if Lehane had been the source, especially since he had switched horses mid-race. As Steve McMahon, a Dean media consultant, put it to me: “To work for someone and then walk across the street and work against them is beneath contempt. The one person who should hope John Kerry doesn’t become president is Chris Lehane.”
Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s former campaign manager, told me he’d also heard Lehane had been shopping the rumor—presumably on Clark’s behalf.
Drudge claimed Clark himself had told reporters on his campaign bus that Kerry was going to “implode” over a scandal, but when I called Wesley Clark Jr., a screenwriter in L.A., who had helped out on his father’s campaign, he told me Drudge had ignored the context of his father’s quote. “He was reacting to the latest issue of The National Enquirer, which had just run a front-page story about Kerry and possible scandals, when he said that.”