Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Mud in your inbox

SUMMARY: Chain emails spread rumors about candidates that ricochet around the Internet for years. The emails sometimes begin with a grain of truth but often distort the facts, as we found with an attack against Hillary Clinton that falsely claims she refused to meet with the Gold Star Mothers.

Shortly after Sen. Hillary Clinton took office in 2001, Shirley Jones, an official with the American Gold Star Mothers, dropped by Clinton's new Capitol Hill office to see if she had a few minutes to chat. But Jones and a colleague did not have an appointment and the senator wasn't there. They left.

That ordinary encounter became the centerpiece of an e-mail attack against Clinton that seemed to peak six years ago. But now that she's a presidential candidate it is again ricocheting around the Internet.

Referring to the senator as "the Queen herself, Hillary Rotten Clinton," the e-mail says she "refused repeated requests to meet with the Gold Star Mothers."

Never mind that the American Gold Star Mothers has a link on its home page titled "Hillary Rumor Not True." Never mind that she's met with Gold Star leaders four times and sponsored a bill on their behalf. And never mind that the famous World War II fighter pilot whose name appears at the bottom of the e-mail says someone forged his name.

In the Internet age, the truth can be trumped — or at least drowned out — by a thousand people clicking FORWARD WITH ATTACHMENT. Thanks to the relentless circles of e-mail, an attack never really ends.

Said Chris Lehane, a former spokesman in the Clinton White House, "You can have a completely scurrilous, inaccurate, potentially defamatory e-mail go around the country — if not the world — in nanoseconds. And you'll never be able to catch up with it."

Snubbed?

Jones, 84, is a retired telephone company worker from Whitesboro, N.Y., who is active in Gold Star Mothers, a group of women whose sons or daughters were killed in war. Her son Thomas was killed in Vietnam in 1967.

In February 2001, she was in Washington for the group's national board meeting, so she took an extra day to visit Capitol Hill. She was seeking support for a bill that would provide a monthly payment of $125 for families of fallen soldiers.

She met with Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican who represented her upstate New York area, and then went to the Senate to try to see Clinton. She was accompanied by Mary Wheeler, another official from the Gold Star Mothers.

They did not have an appointment, usually a necessity to meet with a U.S. senator, especially one from a large state like New York. And sure enough, a receptionist said Clinton was not in the office. In an interview last week with the St. Petersburg Times, Jones said she was not bothered by the way they were treated by the Clinton staffer, but that Wheeler was.

News accounts from 2001 indicate both women were miffed about it. A brief story in the Albany Times Union said Jones was disappointed she couldn't even meet with a legislative aide, and that the newly hired Clinton receptionist "seemed oblivious to Gold Star Mothers." (The Clinton office apologized, telling the Albany paper that the office was understaffed.)

Dan Frisa, a former Republican congressman from Long Island, N.Y. heard about their encounter and wrote a column for NewsMax.com, a conservative Web site.

NewsMax plays up stories and columns that are critical of the New York senator. Some typical headlines from the site: "Hillary's Cell Phone Spying to be Probed," "Liberal Bloggers Boo Hillary" and "Romney Compares Hillary to Karl Marx."

In May 2001, NewsMax carried this one:

"Hillary Snubs Gold Star Mothers."

Mudslinging

"Throw plenty of dirt," says an ancient Latin phrase, "and some of it will be sure to stick." For centuries, politicians and their surrogates have made scurrilous attacks on their opponents — all the better when the mud can be thrown from the shadows.

In the bitter 1800 presidential campaign, critics said that if Thomas Jefferson were elected, rape and incest would become rampant. Jefferson became so tired of the attacks that he wrote, "It has been so impossible to contradict all their lies that I have determined to contradict none."

Candidates themselves don't usually throw the mud. Typically, it's done by their surrogates, or by supporters acting on their own.

E-mail is ideal for mudslinging because it's cheap and lightning-fast, and it can be done without leaving fingerprints.

"We've always had these political rumors. It's just easier to spread them with the Internet," said Stephen Stambough, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton who has studied the use of e-mails in campaigns.

The Gold Star Mothers e-mail, which was sent to the St. Petersburg Times by a reader who wondered if it was true, is part of a growing trend, political analysts say. Other recent chain e-mails contend that Barack Obama is a Muslim (false), and that Obama attended a radical Muslim school (he didn't).

John Ratliff, a state government employee in Ohio who runs a Web site called BreakTheChain.org that debunks rumors, said chain e-mails more often target Democrats than Republicans. But over the past few years, he's seen some e-mails that have made bogus claims about Republicans, especially President Bush. (One alleged that he mistakenly said feces when he meant fetus).

Ratliff says the e-mails from both sides follow an effective recipe: "You play on emotion, you propagate stereotypes."

The charges often aren't addressed by mainstream news organizations, which often consider them too frivolous to warrant coverage. But the e-mails are widely circulated and provide fresh grist to keep activists fired up about an opponent.

Political scientists predict there will be plenty more chain e-mails about the presidential candidates over the next year.

"I think we'll see a lot more of this, especially with the race being as open as it is," said Stambough. "Especially with Clinton, because she is such a polarizing figure, it's so easy — all you have to do is recycle stuff from eight years ago."

'Shabby treatment'

The NewsMax article in May 2001 said Clinton "dished out her by-now-familiar rude treatment to a group of Gold Star Mothers."

Frisa, the author of the story, has strong feelings against Clinton. "I think she is one of the most despicable people in public office," he said. "I think she's power-hungry and doesn't give a damn about anything other than her own power."

Frisa, who served in Congress from 1995 to 1997 and is an occasional columnist for NewsMax, relied on a second-hand account of the incident. He got his information from John Behan, a former director of the New York State Division of Veterans' Affairs who had spoken to the women.

Frisa said he did not try to contact Clinton's office for its side of the story because "It was a column. I sourced it from John Behan and thought that was sufficient." Frisa said he does not recall if he tried to contact Jones from the Gold Star Mothers, but Jones said she did not talk with him.

Wheeler, the other Gold Star Mother who was with Jones that day, declined to comment for the St. Petersburg Times. Behan could not be reached by the Times.

Frisa's story said the Gold Star Mothers were unhappy with "the outright shabby treatment shown them by the former First Lady ... She and her staff simply refused to meet with them."

The article said the Gold Star Mothers followed up with letters requesting a meeting but twice received no reply: "One can only assume that the senator doesn't much care to meet with these special New Yorkers."

But Jones and others from the Gold Star Mothers said the NewsMax account is incorrect. Clinton never "refused to meet;" she simply wasn't in the office.

The Gold Star Mothers did send a letter requesting an appointment, but Jones said Clinton's office soon arranged a meeting.

And now, six years later, Jones has met with Clinton four times. She praises the Democratic senator for her help and for introducing a bill to give families of fallen soldiers $125 each month.

"As a mother, she was very understanding," Jones says. "I felt she was very supportive — and I'm a Republican."

Another false claim

The facts haven't gotten in the way of the story.

At some point over the years, someone added an additional allegation to the Gold Star e-mail: that the Secret Service pays the full cost of the Clintons' mortgage on their home in Chappaqua, N.Y.

That claim also is false. A White House spokeswoman said in 2001 that even though the Clintons would eligible to receive about $1,100 per month for space in their home occupied by Secret Service agents, they decided not to accept the money.

It's not clear who wrote the e-mail. At the bottom it says "Sincerely, Cdr. Hamilton McWhorter USN (ret)." — the name of a retired military officer who presumably gives the message additional credibility.

A St. Petersburg Times search of public records found only one McWhorter who fit that title — a legendary Navy fighter pilot from World War II, now 86 and living in El Cajon, Calif.

He said in an e-mail exchange with the Times that he did not write the Gold Star Mothers e-mail, and is tired of hearing about it. He believes someone copied his name from a Web site or from publicity about his memoir The First Hellcat Ace.

His wife, Louise, said, "My husband is a Georgia gentleman. He would never write that about a woman."

'Please forward'

There's no evidence the Gold Star Mothers e-mail was written or passed along by other presidential campaigns. Instead, it has been circulated by scores of partisans who dislike the New York senator.

The e-mail contains a P.S.: "Please forward this to as many people as you can. We don't want this woman to even think of running for President."

Clinton's Senate office and the Gold Star Mothers have tried for years to knock down the charge. The Gold Star Mothers have posted messages on their Web site that say the story is not accurate. A few years ago, the message was a plea for help: "We would appreciate it if the e-mails and negative comments about Senator Clinton would cease."

Clinton's office directs people to Web sites that fact-check urban legends such as Snopes.com.

"You can't shut (the rumor) down because you don't know who has seen it," said Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines. "It's very difficult to get that toothpaste back in the tube."