The only unanswered question about the politically inspired lie that Sen. John Kerry had had an affair with an "intern" was which interested source planted it with the eager Internet right-wing hooligan Matt Drudge and with conservative British newspapers that put it into wide public play. Its timing was fortuitous. Immediately after George W. Bush went into a tailspin, falling behind Democratic presidential front-runner Kerry in the polls, Kerry became the subject of smears filled with remembrance of things past. First, a phony composite photograph was circulated of Kerry standing next to Jane Fonda at an anti-Vietnam War rally. "Thou hast committed fornication." Unfortunately, not only did Fonda denounce the ploy as a "dirty trick," but so did Republican Sen. John McCain, heroic Vietnam prisoner of war, Bush's rival for the nomination in 2000 and a close friend of Kerry's. "But that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead." The attempt to revive the dread of the Nixon era failed, the scarlet letter of the Clinton years was unfurled. Thus another wench was promptly surfaced.
The Drudge Report, claiming 15 million readers, reported that a young "intern" had a "mystery relationship" with Kerry and that several major U.S. news organizations were already investigating. None of them published a word, though political society in Washington and New York instantly turned into a burnt-over district consumed with the gossip. On Feb. 13, on the eve of Valentine's Day, Rupert Murdoch's Sun screeched, "New JFK Rocked by Sex Scandal," naming the woman as Alexandra Polier and quoting her father as calling Kerry "a sleazeball." On Feb. 15, the Tory papers, the Mail and the Telegraph, quoted her "friend": "This is not going to go away. What actually happened is much nastier than what is being reported." Murdoch's Sunday Times repeated the "sleazeball" quote and winked knowingly: "It is a tale of two Americas, as the Democrats might say."
Back in the USA, frustrated right-wing media tried to force the issue, using the authority of the British imprimatur. Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk-show host, broadcasting on more than 600 radio stations, boomed, "It's all over the U.K. press! It's front page!" He suggested that former President Clinton was the source of the story in order to bump off Kerry and help Sen. Hillary Clinton become president. Neoconservative former junior Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in the National Review: "Isn't it curious how after a story like this breaks there turn out to be dozens of people who were in on the secret?" On CNN, Sunday Times columnist and Drudge pal Andrew Sullivan held forth: "Can you anymore not talk about something that's on the front page of the Times of London, front page of the Drudge Report, on everybody's minds? There comes a point at which the media has to acknowledge people are talking."
On Feb. 16, the 27-year-old Miss Polier spoke for herself, declaring the story "completely false" and explaining her motive in stepping forward. "Because these stories were false, I assumed the media would ignore them. It seems that efforts to peddle these lies continue, so I feel compelled to address them." It turned out she was not even an "intern." Her outraged father and mother announced their intention to vote for Kerry. The father said that the notorious "sleazeball" quote attributed to him had been fabricated. Drudge, ever gallant, blamed the story on the young woman's imagined seductive behavior: "Polier's flippant remarks and flirtatious manner, according to friends, fueled the intrigue."
The defamation, the media amplification through the conservative network, the British blowback were all well rehearsed. Drudge, in fact, had initially gained his celebrity by libeling me on the first day I began work in the Clinton White House, in August 1997, reporting as fact that I was hiding police records of domestic violence. When I summoned my wife to read the incredible story, she actually looked behind the computer and asked if a friend of mine had created it as some sort of joke. But within hours conservative media were spreading it like wildfire and even some friends of ours wondered if there might be something there. Drudge freely admitted that Republican operatives had given him the story and that he had been used. It is his usual method.
"Screw journalism! The whole thing's a fraud anyway," Drudge has proclaimed. Though he calls himself an "information anarchist," he is anything but independent. Rather, he is a reliable submissive to his partisan "sources." One independent study of his "exclusive" stories determined that only about one-third were true. His latest "intern" revelation is the sound of his master's voice at the beginning of a campaign Republicans fear losing.
In the U.S., there is virtually no legal protection for a public figure, especially a political one, from defamation. Libel laws are de facto defunct. Public opinion is inevitably swayed by this tainting, all journalism has fallen under suspicion, and truth cannot easily be distinguished from malicious fiction. Only if Kerry (or Polier) were to sue the Sun under British libel law, for example, would this transatlantic corruption of the press be truly engaged. Then a British court would begin to set important rules in American politics.