When in 1998 then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton put her husband's persecutions down to "a vast right-wing conspiracy," she was widely ridiculed.
I had doubts myself. In my view, what conspiracies need to thrive are the two least common attributes in the modern world - total secrecy combined with intelligence. In the real world, someone always blabs and they often do so because they are none too bright.
Now, 10 years on, I am not so sure if something vast and sinister isn't going on.
For two years now, ever since Barack Obama's candidacy grew legs, I have been regularly bombarded with ridiculous claims made about him in widely circulated e-mails, some of which you may have seen yourself. I guess I am included on these mailing lists by people who want to set me straight about the "truth."
This rumor-mongering is viral in the most noxious and infectious senses of the world.
One old guy - my guess is that they are mostly old guys - sends a piece of fresh misinformation to another old guy whom he knows will appreciate it. Often these messages will come with a tagline that says: This is scary! In fact, the only thing scary is the mass assault on facts.
The guys doing this emailing are not necessarily stupid (I have at least one very smart Republican friend who seriously believes Barack Obama was born in Kenya).
But smart or stupid, all these e-mail recipients have this in common: They stand ready to believe anything about a rival candidate if it conforms or reinforces their prejudices.
They are not the least interested in the truth - it would take a minute of searching the Internet to prove the falsity of what they send to others but they have no interest in checking. Of course, it is an article of faith among these guys that the mainstream media aren't telling the truth - they take the latest scurrilous e-mail of the day as proof of this belief.
That a huge cohort of right-wingers exists ready to accept any old political garbage surely hasn't escaped the notice of GOP strategists. But they wouldn't stoop so low as to feed this demand, would they?
If you go to an urban legends Web site, such as snopes.com, you will find all the claims examined in detail. Today's entry has more than 40 for Obama. It's all there, just about every crazy notion ... he is a radical Muslim, unpatriotic, is lying about his birthplace, is backed by Hugo Chavez, is mentioned as the anti-Christ in the Book of Revelations and so on and stupid so on.
By contrast, only a few claims are made about John McCain (a dozen were listed by Snopes today and about half were adjudged true). This, in short, is a very right-wing phenomenon.
What strikes me about this blizzard of lies is that it so neatly dovetails into the mainstream assertions of the Republican campaign: He (Obama) is not what you think. Why, we don't really don't know enough about him and his friends.
This has been a fertile field for the GOP, and it just so happens that it was seeded and watered by the fifth-column of slander spreaders. Perhaps this is just the work of individuals but it appears way smarter than that. As the lies reverberate along the Web, I find myself wondering what spider is at the center looking for the gullible flies.
By chance, as I was writing this, another example of slime came in - not from a disgruntled reader, as usual, but on the Christian Newswire, wherein some guy lists all the alleged calumnies of Barack Obama. It ends with a poem, the first four lines of which should give you the flavor:
"Born in Kenya and raised in Islam
Mentored by Wright and Louis Farakahn
Woked with the commies, and kooks in his town
Like William Ayers and the weather underground ..."
It's because of this shadow campaign that I don't entirely believe the polls that show Barack Obama ahead. He is up against evil geniuses.
I don't know for sure if they are organized in a vast right-wing conspiracy -- I still remain a skeptic about conspiracies in general -- but this I know: Sometimes it sure seems like a vast conspiracy and it sure smells like a vast conspiracy.