Digging up dirt on Michelle Obama

SUMMARY: E-mailers go after Sen. Barack Obama by digging into his wife's college years. They take Michelle Obama's senior thesis and add their own fabrication.

There seems to be no shortage of serious issues for this campaign season, but lurking in e-mail accounts are attacks on the candidates' biographies. Sen. Barack Obama has been a particular target of anonymous e-mail; we at PolitiFact have received more negative e-mails about him than any other candidate, by a significant margin. Typically, e-mails portray him as unpatriotic and un-American. The latest chain e-mail involves his wife.

The e-mail looks at a research paper Michelle Obama wrote while a student at Princeton University 23 years ago. It takes a few actual sentences out of context, and fabricates a few quotes that don't exist in her work.

The e-mail begins:

"In her senior thesis at Princeton, Michele Obama, the wife of Barack Obama stated that America was a nation founded on 'crime and hatred.' Moreover, she stated that whites in America were 'ineradicably racist.' The 1985 thesis, titled 'Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community' was written under her maiden name, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson."

Later the e-mail opines, "Michele (sic) Obama clearly has a chip on her shoulder. Not only does she see separate black and white societies in America, but she elevates black over white in her world."

But nowhere in the thesis does Michelle Obama write the words "crime and hatred" or that whites are "ineradicably racist." The e-mail does get the thesis title, her maiden name and the year correct. It also uses real quotations from the thesis, though a few are taken out of context.

The thesis is available on the Internet; the politics news site Politico reported on it in February and posted a copy it had obtained from Princeton University .

We downloaded a copy, which appears to be complete with no numbered pages missing. We read it, but we did not find the phrases the e-mail describes. We took the additional step of scanning the document through optical character recognition software so we could search its text electronically. An automated search did not find the words "crime," "hatred," "hate," "ineradicably," or "racist" in the document.

Every senior at Princeton writes a thesis or finishes an independent project. Famous alumni who wrote undergraduate theses at Princeton include New Yorker editor David Remnick ("The Sympathetic Thread: 'Leaves of Grass' 1855-1865") and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito ("An Introduction to the Italian Constitutional Court"). Obama wrote her thesis as part of a bachelor's degree in sociology and graduated with honors, according to Princeton University's Department of Sociology Web site.

Sociology uses scientific methods to study human group behavior. In Obama's thesis, she sought to quantify how the attitudes of black Princeton alumni changed after graduation in regard to race relations and social change. Obama was especially interested in the attitudes of Princeton alumni in regard to improving the lives of lower-income blacks.

To document the change in attitudes, Obama devised an 18-question survey and mailed it to black alumni. Her thesis is a discussion of her methodology and an analysis of the results. It contains a limited amount of personal opinion in the introduction, including the sentence the e-mail cites. Here is a fuller excerpt:

"Earlier in my college career, there was no doubt in my mind that as a member of the Black community I was somehow obligated to this community and would utilize all of my present and future resources to benefit this community first and foremost. My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'Blackness' than ever before. I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with Whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black first and a student second."

Obama's perceptions have been supported at least in part by recent reporting: Obama's freshmen-year roommate tried to change rooms upon arrival at Princeton because her mother was horrified that Obama was black , according to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

But Obama writes a few paragraphs later that her earlier assumptions were changing, too:

"At the same time, however, it is conceivable that my four years of exposure to a predominately White, Ivy League University has instilled within me certain conservative values. For example, as I enter my final year at Princeton, I find myself striving for many of the same goals as my White classmates — acceptance to a prestigious graduate or professional school or a high paying position in a successful corporation. Thus, my goals after Princeton are not as clear as before."

The rest of the thesis goes on to discuss survey methodology such as independent variables, dependent variables and sample size, then summarizes the survey response. Obama found that black alumni identified with the black community the most during their years at Princeton, moreso than either before or afterward, and she discusses a number of possible reasons for the survey results.

Certainly, Obama's thesis is race-conscious. But it does not include anything that can fairly be described as antiwhite invective.

But should a candidate's wife's undergraduate course work from 23 years ago be fair game in the election? Even academics have mixed feelings about it, according to the news Web site InsideHigherEd.com , because the work is typically that of someone who has just recently entered adulthood.

Political observers have questioned the relevance of a spouse's academic work.

When the thesis became public in February 2008, it was a topic on the Fox News show Hannity & Colmes . Former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, a noted conservative and a commentator for the network, said on the show he thought her thesis work wasn't relevant to the current campaign.

"First off, a spouse's personal life is out of bounds, period, end of discussion," Santorum said. "This is something that she did at an age when you write some pretty strange stuff sometimes. I hope they don't pull up my college thesis papers."

"If she's out, as she was on the campaign trail, speaking on behalf of her husband, and she says something at that point and it's in the public policy realm, fine, then that's a legitimate point," he added. "But to dig out someone's past, (it's) out of bounds. Leave it alone, move on."

Republicans may be more sensitive this year about issues of a spouse's past because of Cindy McCain's history with a painkiller addiction. McCain was stealing pills from a medical charity she ran and the incident became public in 1994. No charges were filed, and she reimbursed the charity, but the incident received national press coverage at the time.

Obama himself has defended his wife, not for her thesis but for other attacks made against her on the campaign trial, saying people should not attack his wife.

Obama said he found it "unacceptable" that the Republican Party should attack his wife or children, responding to a Tennessee state party ad that targeted Michelle Obama.

"Michelle is the most honest, the best person I know. She is one of the most caring people I know. She loves this country. And for them to try to distort or to play snippets of her remarks in ways that are unflattering to her I think is just low class. And I think most of the American people would think that as well," Obama said.