This week saw the passing of former Florida Senator "Gorgeous George" Smathers, who represented the Sunshine State from 1951-1969. Smathers was handsome, dapper, witty and well-connected. Indeed, he, along with Bobby Kennedy served as co-best man at the 1953 Kennedy/Bouvier wedding in Newport, Rhode Island. In his post-Senate life, Smathers made a fortune; his philanthropic efforts include a $20 million gift to the University of Florida library system, and a $10 million grant to the University of Miami.
For all his suave urbanity, Smathers was also a typical Southern Democrat; he was one of the signers of the notorious "Southern Manifesto," which condemned the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to desegregate the public school system. Smathers will long be remembered for a series of senate campaign speeches -- which he steadfastly denied ever having given -- in which he pilloried Senator Claude Pepper in a most unique manner. In the 1951 Democratic Primary, Smathers allegedly told rural voters that Senator Pepper:
- "Is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert. . ."
- "Is reliably known to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law . . ."
- "Has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York . . .
- "Before marriage actually practiced celibacy . . ."
Senator Smathers steadfastly denied that he had ever uttered these words, and in fact, had a standing offer of $10,000 cash to anyone who had incontrovertible proof. In 55 years, no one ever claimed the reward. And yet, whether or not these inanities were ever part of a Smather's speech, the memory persists. Indeed, it has been prominently featured in virtually every one of his obituaries. Talk about urban legends!
No one will ever know of a certainty whether or not Senator Smathers ever accused Senator Pepper of being an extrovert or having practiced nepotism with his sister-in-law. What is clear, however, is that Gorgeous George never blamed "The Red Pepper" [as his detractors called him] for having himself spread the rumor in the first place.
"How's that?" you ask.
Well, within the past week or so, we have witnessed the emergence of yet another "urban legend" -- this one concerning Senator Barack Obama. According to an article that originated on the Internet and then speedily made its way up the media food chain, the junior senator from Illinois spent several years studying at an Islamic midrasa as a little boy growing up in Indonesia. "This means," the inventors of the urban legend declare, "that Senator Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. [the right just loves to use his middle name], is a radical, ideological Muslim." Mind you, this isn't the rant of some dim bulb blogging for Idiotsareus.com; it was actually reported by talking head Glen Beck on his nationally televised program, and appeared on the front page of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post.
Reports of Senator Obama's supposed Islamist predilections have quickly made their way through cyberspace. And despite the fact that a full-scale inquiry by CNN [which included sending an investigative reporter to Obama's former school in Jakarta] has completely deflated this obnoxious canard, there are -- and likely always will be -- lots and lots of folks out there who will continue to remind us that "Obama rhymes with Osama," and believe that "Obama is a Muslim on a mission."
But wait; there's more . . .
Once CNN went public with the facts of the matter, the boys and girls at Fox, the New York Post and out there in cyberspace made it known that the original smear -- about Senator Obama's alleged Muslim background -- had actually come from unidentified sources deep within . . . the Hillary Clinton campaign! How brilliantly diabolical! An act of legerdemain worthy of Copperfield or Houdini; a brazen smear that begrimes not one, but two Democrats with a single swipe. By comparison, George Smather's attack on Claude Pepper was little more than a clever schoolboy's prank. If Smathers had been truly brilliant, he would have of course blamed the entire Pepper smear on Pepper himself!
The entire Obama/misdrasa/Clinton imbroglio seems worthy of Hitchcock at his best; of paths and clues which at first seem terribly important, but upon further inspection lead virtually nowhere. In Hitchcock's world, this is called a "MacGuffin."
According to Hollywood legend, Hitchcock adapted [stole?] the idea of the "MacGuffin" from British screenwriter Angus ["Spellbound," "The Wrong Man"] MacPhail. In trying to explain the MacGuffin, Hitchcock told of the following encounter between two men:
"What have you there?" asked the man.
"Oh, that's a MacGuffin," replied his companion.
"What's a MacGuffin?"
"It's a device for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands."
"But there aren't any lions in the Scottish Highlands."
"Well then, I guess it's not a MacGuffin!"
What we have in the current Obama/midrasa/Clinton scenario is, in a sense, a double MacGuffin; two interwoven acts of political misdirection whose intention is to clobber two candidates at once. It is diabolical. It is reprehensible. It is also demonically brilliant.
If this is what's going on in January 2007 -- nearly two years before the election -- imagine what lies, smears and dirty dealings we are likely to witness in the weeks and months ahead. What in the world are Murdoch's schlockmeisters going to do for a follow-up? Accuse Senator Clinton of having been seen masticating at The Four Seasons? Report that Senator Obama engages in philately with his young daughters?
Why not? Sure beats the heck out of having the public pay attention to such "boring" topics as Iraq, healthcare and global warming.
The good old double MacGuffin: Smathers and Hitchcock must be laughing themselves silly.