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Obama's message must work way uphill

E-mail attacks have the candidate spending time defending himself in ways others don't have to.

By Wes Allison, Times Staff Writer
Published February 10, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama is often confronted with attacks on his religion and patriotism.
[AP photo]
[AP photo]
Some observers question whether the attacks on Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama's religion and patriotism are really attacks on his race, veiled in a more socially acceptable argument.

WASHINGTON - Republican Sen. John McCain uses town hall meetings to disabuse voters of the notion that he leans a bit to the left.

Mitt Romney used his stump speeches to convince folks that his shift from moderate governor of Massachusetts to conservative Republican candidate for president wasn't just a ploy. During Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's speeches and roundtables, she tries to counter the impression that she's cool and calculating.

Sen. Barack Obama, however, is the only candidate for president who feels compelled to tell crowds he took the oath of office on the Bible, not the Koran. That he's not a radical Muslim intent on taking over the United States from within. That he does, indeed, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, with his hand over his heart.

"They say I'm a Muslim. They say I don't pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America," Obama told several hundred people packed into a high school gym in Beaufort, S.C., before the South Carolina primary last month.

"I preside over the United States Senate," he continued, clearly exasperated. "When I open it up, I lead the pledge on C-SPAN. ...

"They are just trying to mislead you - to bamboozle you. They are afraid of change, so they want you to be afraid."

After winning 13 of 22 state nominating contests on Super Tuesday and more delegates in contests Saturday, Obama is in a near-tie with Clinton, the former first lady, in the race for the Democratic nomination.

But Obama, the first African-American with a real chance to win the presidency, also is battling an insidious e-mail campaign that raises questions about something his opponents never have to defend: his patriotism and commitment to America.

While not overtly racial, the chain e-mails seek to exploit Obama's skin color, his name and his lineage. They challenge Obama's efforts to portray himself as a composite of America, rather than an outlier.

Michael Dawson, an expert in race and politics at the University of Chicago, said the falsehoods are likely to raise doubts among people who, because of Obama's race, aren't quite comfortable with him anyway.

"In that sense it's compounded," Dawson said. "And again, historically, if you're thinking about negative stereotypes, one of the most enduring is the threatening black male."

The e-mails are enduring as well. Despite letters from rabbis and priests, senators and generals, despite a countercampaign on the Web and Obama's impassioned appeals to voters, the charges are commonly repeated on conservative blogs and have bled from cyberspace into conservative talk radio and television., a Web site dedicated to debunking urban myths, says the e-mails about Obama top its list of most widely circulated myths. E-mails about Clinton or her husband, the former president, rank 13th.

Obama's election success so far suggests the attempts to smear him as a product of Islamic extremism haven't worked, but experts and some Democratic activists warn that may change if he wins the nomination and expands his campaign beyond the Democratic base.

They point to what happened to Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee: He emerged from the primary as a Vietnam War hero, then faced attacks on his military service that sapped his campaign to the end.

"This is standard operating procedure for unorthodox candidates, and Obama is, of course, unorthodox. What conservatives are trying to do is use religion, in particular Islam, which is a more acceptable form of bigotry than race, as a way to stop his candidacy," said Michael Fauntroy, an expert in African-American politics at George Mason University in Virginia.

"If it's Obama-McCain in November, it's going to be a very close election, and one or two points in one or two states could actually move the election in one way or another."

The original e-mail, as best as can be determined, contends Obama was born and raised a Muslim and was educated in a madrassah, a type of school that teaches a radical version of Islam linked to anti-American extremism, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

More allegations quickly spin out from there. In one, Obama is said to have taken the oath of office on the Koran when he joined the U.S. Senate. Another accuses him of refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance; in another, he also "turns his back on the flag and slouches." Several carry the heading, "Scary ... Please read."

“The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level - through the President of the United States, one of their own!!!!" one e-mail reads.

The allegations build on a germ of truth: Obama was born in Hawaii of a black father from Kenya, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., a nonpracticing Muslim, and a white mother, Ann Dunham, who expressed little interest in organized religion, Obama and his family have said.

His father left when Obama was 2 years old, and his mother later married an Indonesian. The family spent four years in Jakarta, Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country, where Obama attended a public elementary school that included readings from the Koran, the Islamic holy book, in its curriculum. He also attended a Catholic school before returning to the United States when he was 10, moving in with his maternal grandparents. The Dunhams were transplants from Kansas, and his grandfather had fought in Europe during World War II.

But for many, it seems, nothing can mitigate his early brush with Islam. Not his active participation in Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for two decades, not the Bible he has used in his swearing-in ceremonies to the Illinois state and then U.S. Senate.

"I don't believe he's a Manchurian candidate. I have said that he does have these very significant Islamic connections that you cannot break away from. Those are part of his life," said Debbie Schlussel, a conservative commentator and occasional guest on Fox News whose blog,, has provided a forum for readers to discuss the Obama e-mails and their concerns about his heritage.

She said she finds Obama's background scary. "We've never had a candidate who is so closely allied to a religion shared by those who are at war with us around the world."

A proxy for race?

This is a banner year for identity politics, and in that sense Obama doesn't differ so much from his opponents.

Clinton's campaign has been asked how Americans can expect a female president to negotiate with Middle Eastern leaders who don't respect women as equals. Romney fought skepticism about his Mormon religion. At age 71, McCain faces questions about whether he's too old for the job.

But race remains the great divide, difficult to bridge yet in many ways off-limits. Some scholars see the attacks on Obama's faith, and the questions they raise about his patriotism, as a convenient proxy.

"It's unfortunate, but it's one of those kind of things where you don't want it to be what it likely is," said William Jelani Cobb, a history professor at Spellman College, a historically black school in Atlanta, and author of The Devil & Dave Chappelle & Other Essays.

"It is not acceptable to send something out with a whole list of racial slurs, but you can slime him in other ways."

The Obama e-mails began circulating more than a year ago, then multiplied in December as he rose in polls, his campaign said. Staffers drafted an outline of facts and coached precinct captains in Iowa, site of the first nomination contest, on how to answer questions about the rumors. They also disseminated a letter signed by Iowa religious leaders attesting to Obama's Christian faith.

Yet the e-mails persisted as the campaign moved to New Hampshire last month, then to South Carolina.

"Ultimately, you could tell when we started to do better, they started to pick up, and they started to move around rather quickly," Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

Three weeks ago, Obama addressed the matter in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.

"I want to make sure that your viewers understand that I am a Christian who has belonged to the same church for almost 20 years now," Obama told the network. "It's where Michelle and I got married. It's where our kids were dedicated. I took my oath of office on my family Bible."

Meanwhile, the campaign has established a Web page dedicated to fighting the charges, It features an interview with a white member of Obama's church that's aimed at countering a widespread e-mail saying, "what color you will need to be if you should want to join Obama's church ... B-L-A-C-K!!!"

Obama also has released letters from retired U.S. generals vouching for his patriotism and from seven Jewish U.S. senators urging voters targeted by the false e-mails to disregard them. National Jewish leaders sent a similar letter.

"We're taking aggressive steps to correct this online, and at his events, and everywhere else," Vietor said.

But some wonder if those steps are enough. On one hand, politicians are wary of amplifying the charges by making a fuss, the way Romney gave a national address about his Mormon faith in December.

On the other, the volume of attacks hasn't lessened.

Dawson, the University of Chicago professor, teaches a class on democracy and the Internet, and he had expected the unproven charges about Kerry's conduct as skipper of a Navy swift boat in Vietnam to hold little sway among voters who weren't already against him.

Yet the swift boat attacks turned Kerry's political strength, his history as a decorated combat veteran, into a liability that contributed to his defeat.

Kerry, who has endorsed Obama, now is urging his supporters to fight the e-mail smears by writing to their local papers, calling their local radio stations, and sending e-mails detailing the truth about Obama.

In December, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 8 percent of Americans believed Obama is Muslim.

Another supporter, U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, warns that the campaign must take extra care to respond aggressively if he becomes the nominee.

"I believe he is responding with seriousness, but this of course is a totally different type of attack," Wexler said. "I wouldn't be cavalier about these e-mails."

Wes Allison can be reached at or (202) 463-0577.

Sorting out the truth in politics

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has been dogged by a series of anonymous e-mails that question his faith and patriotism. Here's a sampling of the claims checked by, the fact-checking Web site of the St. Petersburg Times. For the full rulings, go to and click on Barack Obama.

CLAIM: "Obama was enrolled in a Wahabi school in Jakarta. Wahabism is the RADICAL teaching that is followed by the Muslim terrorists who are now waging Jihad against the western world."

Ruling: He attended a public elementary school for two years in Jakarta, Indonesia, a largely Muslim country.
Claim: "While others place their hands over their hearts, Obama turns his back to the flag and slouches."

Ruling: This claim relies on a Time magazine photo where Obama is shown with his hands clasped in front of his waist. But he does not appear to be slouching and there's no evidence to suggest his posture was an antipatriotic statement.
Claim: When Obama was sworn into office, "he DID NOT use the Holy Bible, but instead the Kuran (Their equivalency to our Bible, but very different beliefs)."

Ruling: Obama used his personal Bible when he was sworn into the U.S. Senate in 2005 and, before that, into the state Senate of Illinois.

[Last modified February 9, 2008, 20:16:51]

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