One question remains unanswered about the politically inspired lie that Senator John Kerry had had an affair with an "intern". Which interested source planted it with the rightwing internet hooligan Matt Drudge and with the conservative British newspapers that put it into wide public play? Its timing was fortuitous. Immediately after George Bush went into a tailspin, falling behind the Democratic presidential frontrunner, John 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. Unfortunately, not only did Fonda denounce the ploy as a "dirty trick", but so did Republican senator John McCain, heroic Vietnam prisoner of war, Bush's rival for the nomination in 2000 and a close friend of Kerry's. The attempt to revive the dread of the Nixon era failed, and the scarlet letter of the Clinton years was unfurled. The Drudge Report, claiming 15 million readers, alleged that a young "intern" had a "mystery relationship" with Kerry and that several major US news organizations were already investigating. But none published a word, though political society in Washington and New York was instantly consumed with gossip.
On February 13, on the eve of Valentine's Day, Rupert Murdoch's Sun newspaper screeched, "New JFK rocked by sex scandal", naming the woman as Alexandra Polier and quoting her father as calling Kerry "a sleazeball". On February 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 US, frustrated rightwing 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 UK press! It's front page!" He suggested that President Clinton was the source of the story in order to bump off Kerry and help Senator Hillary Clinton become president. The neoconservative former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in 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, the 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 February 16, 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 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 was all well-rehearsed. Drudge initially gained his celebrity by libeling me on the day I began work in the Clinton White House in August 1997, reporting as fact that I was hiding police records of domestic violence. Within hours, conservative media were spreading the story like wildfire. Drudge 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 once proclaimed. Though he calls himself an "information anarchist", he is anything but independent. He is a reliable submissive to his partisan "sources". One independent study of his "exclusive" stories determined that only 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 US, 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.
· Sidney Blumenthal is a former senior adviser to President Clinton and author of 'The Clinton Wars'
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004