Ridiculous, petty — but true
The buzz on the campaign trail Sunday was about a new poll showing Barack Obama taking the lead in Iowa, but that was before everyone knew what the senator said that day:
"I have not been planning to run for president for however number of years some of the other candidates have been planning for."
The disclosure led his archrival to pounce with an attack soon to be the gaffe to remember. Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign issued a thoroughly researched news release challenging what Obama had said about his ambitions.
"Senator Obama's relatives and friends say he has been talking about running for president for at least the last 15 years," Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said in the release. "So who's not telling the truth, them or him?"
Culled from Obama profiles written by news organizations, the Clinton campaign made the case that with his remarks, Obama had deliberately understated his past interest in running for president. The evidence:
• Former classmates who said that when he was at Harvard Law School, Obama was "thinking about politics."
• A brother-in-law saying Obama told him in the early 1990s that he was interested in a run for president.
• An essay Obama wrote in third grade called, "I want to be a president."
• An essay he wrote in kindergarten called, "I Want To Become President."
The Clinton charges hit the Internet fan Monday, one more attack in the battle of Democratic presidential candidates. Blogs busted with commentary, including one from the Harvard College Democrats saying, "They really went back to his elementary school essays to pin ambition on him?"
By Tuesday, the Clinton campaign was backing off, with chief campaign strategist Mark Penn telling MSNBC's Joe Scarborough that "it was a joke."
Thing is, the news release doesn't read like a joke. (See it for yourself here .)
"It certainly doesn't have that tongue in cheek . . . that you often get with joke press releases," said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist not aligned with a candidate, but who worked as a consultant to Obama's Hopefund PAC for six months in 2006. "The problem with saying it's a joke is it's preceded by very substantive, real conversation. So either everything in the release is a joke or nothing in the release is a joke."
Also, "I'm one of the people wondering what kind of kindergarten has kids writing essays," she said.
In an e-mail to supporters on Tuesday, Obama said: "When I decided to run for president, I accepted that my opponents would dig through my record looking for something to attack. I didn't realize they'd go all the way back to kindergarten."
The Clinton campaign cites several newspaper profiles in building its case that Obama long planned to run for president.
The kindergarten assertion draws from an Associated Press article published in January 2007. "Iis Darmawan, 63, Obama's kindergarten teacher, remembers him as an exceptionally tall and curly-haired child who quickly picked up the local language and had sharp math skills. 'He wrote an essay titled, "I Want To Become President," ' the teacher said."
The campaign also points to a Los Angeles Times article published in March 2007 that includes Obama's third-grade teacher, Fermina Katarina Sinaga. "Sinaga asked her class to write an essay titled 'My dream: What I want to be in the future.' Obama 'wrote "I want to be a president." ' she said."
PolitiFact set out to confirm those sources.
Brad Berenson, a classmate and friend of Obama's at Harvard Law School in the early 1990s, said: "I certainly never heard him say directly or indirectly that he wanted to be president of the United States. That kind of sentiment would have been absurdly presumptuous at that point."
Now, Obama spent some of his early years in Indonesia, including kindergarten and third grade. We started to track down those teachers living on the other side of the world, but then we realized this goose chase wasn't worth the effort. The Obama campaign is not denying the accuracy of the Clinton reports.
"I'm sure tomorrow they'll attack him for being a flip-flopper because he told his second-grade teacher that he wanted to be an astronaut," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said.
So, we turned to experts — kindergarten experts.
Can you call the optimistic musings of a 5-year-old ambition?
"It actually is very common for young children to express interest in politics and political jobs of all types," said Don Owens, director of public affairs for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "It's not fair to hold a child to that aspiration at that age in any way. If we're going to do that, we're ultimately not going to allow college students to change majors."
Susan Gold, associate professor of pediatrics and education at the University of Miami said, "No, no no, that's really a leap. I would say that it's like a kid saying I want to be a Heisman Trophy winner or a rap star. . . . Does it really mean they're setting their life's path at age 5?"
We tried to find studies that examine how many kindergartners say they want to be president when they grow up, but nothing fit our criteria.
So, does it appear that Obama expressed ambition for the office of president many years ago? It does.
But it's difficult to imagine how Obama's kindergarten essay will affect voters, in favor of Clinton or not.
"It's silly," said Berenson, the law school classmate, who, by the way, is a staunch Republican and won't be supporting Obama. "I guess it became a joke after it didn't play well."
Dunn, the Democratic strategist, says there's no doubt the Clinton campaign has some facts on its side.
"The overall thematic attack that he is out there saying that he is somehow different from someone else in the field, that he is somehow propelled into this race … I think that's absolutely fair game for the Clinton camp to go after," she said. "On the other hand, were they wise in the example they used?"