Solving the mystery of who smeared Ron Paul
America Wants to Know was watching the Republican candidates debate in South Carolina on Fox News Thursday night when the door flew open and Lieutenant Columbo stormed in.
"I've got him," the lieutenant said.
"Who?" we asked.
"Oh, you're watching the debate," Columbo said.
"Yes," we answered.
"Ron Paul was invited this time, I see."
"My wife just loves Ron Paul," Columbo said. "She was so disappointed last week when Fox News didn't let him into the debate in New Hampshire. She'll enjoy this one tonight a lot more, I can tell you."
On the screen, Fox News reporter Carl Cameron was asking Ron Paul a question. "Many of your supporters call themselves '9/11 truthers,'" he began. "They believe that the U.S. government was in some way complicit with the 9/11 attacks or covered it up. Are you prepared tonight to either embrace that rhetoric or ask those supporters to abandon it, or divorce themselves from your candidacy?"
"That's an odd question," Columbo said. "Now listen, I think I know who smeared Ron Paul in The New Republic last week."
"What's that on your coat?" we asked, pointing to the black smudges on the lieutenant's favorite trenchcoat.
"Soot," Columbo said. "I was digging around in the Old Executive Office Building, where that fire damaged the vice president's ceremonial office. Actually, it turns out that the smoke and water damaged the ceremonial office. The fire was in the office of the vice president's political director."
"Find anything yet?"
"Not yet. The Secret Service took over the investigation and they're not making it easy to ask a lot of questions."
"The Secret Service? Do they have any experience in arson investigations?"
"No," the lieutenant said.
"But never mind that right now," Columbo said, "Did you see that hit piece on Ron Paul that The New Republic published on the day of the New Hampshire primary?"
We had seen it. It was a classic smear job, dragging out old quotes from racists and carefully crafting the impression that the quotes were from Ron Paul, who was the publisher of the newsletter in which the quotes appeared but didn't write the articles or, he says, even see them. Dr. Paul had retired from Congress at the time the newsletters were published and was practicing medicine again.
"Ron Paul is no racist," Columbo said. "Somebody wants to discredit him. Somebody wants to destroy his credibility."
Columbo looked at the TV screen and pointed. "See that split screen?" he asked.
Fox News was showing a split screen with Ron Paul on the right and John McCain on the left. McCain was listening to Paul and making a face that was half disdain, half amusement.
"Look at that," Columbo said. "With that split-screen shot, the director is trying to tell viewers that no one takes Ron Paul seriously. He's trying to give the impression that what Ron Paul is saying is laughable."
Ron Paul was saying that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden had once been given arms and support by the United States and had become problems for us later, and now we are re-arming Saddam's old henchmen, the Sunnis. "Believe me," Congressman Paul said, "that war is not over. And right now, they're demanding more troops in Afghanistan. And some people like the senator, he thinks we should be there for a hundred years if necessary. How can he commit the young people of this world, five more generations, to be in Iraq if it's necessary? I say it's time to come home."
The studio audience at the debate erupted in thunderous cheers.
Columbo chewed on his cigar. "You hear that crowd?" he asked. "That's his problem."
"Whose problem?" we asked. "McCain's?"
"No," Columbo said dismissively. "Nobody on that stage smeared Ron Paul. They're not paying any attention to him. He's so low in the national polls, it doesn't pay to smear him. If they were caught at it, they'd have no chance of picking up his supporters. Or his fund-raising list. No, the Republican candidates didn't peddle that stuff to The New Republic."
"Then who did?" we asked.
"Let me show you something," he said, taking a newspaper from a pocket inside his coat. He dropped it on the desk. It was the Wall Street Journal op-ed page from Thursday, January 10. Circled in black marker was a column headlined "Why Hillary Won," by Karl Rove.
"Another analysis of the polls?" we asked.
"You would think so," Columbo said. "But if you look closely, you can see that it's a smear job on Barack Obama."
He picked up the paper. "Former President Bill Clinton hit a nerve by drawing attention to Mr. Obama's conflicting statements on Iraq," he read, "There's more -- and more powerful -- material available." Columbo looked up from the page. "What do you suppose Karl Rove means by that?" he asked. "Is he trying to tell the Clintons he's got a file for them?"
He resumed reading. "Mr. Obama has failed to rise to leadership on a single major issue in the Senate. In the Illinois legislature, he had a habit of ducking major issues, voting 'present' on bills important to many Democratic interest groups, like abortion-rights and gun-control advocates. He is often lazy, given to misstatements and exaggerations and, when he doesn't know the answer, too ready to try to bluff his way through."
Columbo tossed the paper on the desk. "Lazy?" he said incredulously. The guy's forty-six years old and he's been a lawyer, an Illinois state legislator, got elected to the U.S. Senate, running for president, won in Iowa and damned near won in New Hampshire. How lazy could he be?"
"At least he didn't say 'shiftless,'" we observed.
"He did in the first draft," Columbo said. "My guy at the Journal says the editors caught it. But the question is, why is Karl Rove smearing Barack Obama?"
"The Republicans would rather run against Hillary Clinton?" we guessed.
"Yes, but not for the reason you think," Columbo said. He took a small spiral notebook from the outer pocket of his trenchcoat and flipped through the pages.
"You remember Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak of CIA employee Valerie Plame Wilson's identity, right?" he asked. "You remember that it was Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who was convicted of perjury for saying he didn't remember leaking her name to the press. Do you remember that there was another White House aide who was very nearly indicted for the same thing?"
"Karl Rove," we said.
"Karl Rove," Columbo confirmed. "When Vice President Dick Cheney wanted the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson spread around, two of the people he sent out to leak that information were Scooter Libby and Karl Rove."
"So you think Dick Cheney sent Karl Rove out to smear Barack Obama?"
"Without a doubt," Columbo said. "And he's also behind the smear of Ron Paul."
"But why?" we asked.
Columbo pulled up a chair and sat down. Resting one arm on the desk, he leaned in and spoke softly. "To preserve the Iraq policy after he's gone," he said.
It's times like this that America Wants to Know is grateful that Inspector Clouseau turned us down and made us hire our second-choice detective.
Columbo leaned back. "You see," he explained, "the vice president believes that U.S. troops should be based in Iraq permanently. He's always thought that. If anybody in Congress had the guts to subpoena the Energy Task Force records, you'd see the whole analysis -- the detailed estimates of Iraq's oil reserves, the risks from regional instability, the possible economic consequences of a supply disruption. It's all there. That's why the Energy Task Force records are locked up. If anybody saw them now it would look like the Bush administration had a plan from the start to invade Iraq and topple Saddam's government."
"Did they?" we asked.
"Vice President Cheney doesn't want anybody to ask that question," Columbo answered. "There are three candidates in the presidential race who opposed the Iraq invasion before it happened. They have to be discredited, because if any of them were to get elected, they'd be able to see all the intelligence, all the records, everything. It would all come out. And they'd never agree to keep fourteen permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq."
"Three candidates?" we asked.
"Ron Paul, Barack Obama, and Dennis Kucinich," Columbo said. "But Kucinich has already been discredited by Shirley MacLaine."
"Now, wait a minute," we said. "Are you saying none of the other candidates want to get the U.S. out of Iraq?"
"Oh, sure, they want to," Columbo conceded. "But they're not going to. What they're going to do is tell themselves they're supporting the troops and protecting America while they take huge campaign donations and library contributions from the military-industrial complex."
"C'mon, Lieutenant," we argued, "The military-industrial complex is fictional."
"No," Columbo said firmly. "The military-industrial complex is real. I'm fictional."
He had us there.
"But how can you be sure that the vice president is behind the smears of Ron Paul and Barack Obama?" we asked.
Columbo pointed to the TV screen. "Fox News had no reason to exclude Ron Paul from that New Hampshire debate," he said. "Ron Paul brings viewers. He brings controversy. He's good television. Somebody leaned on Fox to keep him out of that debate. Somebody was very worried that Ron Paul could win in New Hampshire. That's why the hit piece went up on The New Republic's web site the morning of the New Hampshire primary."
On the screen, pollster Frank Luntz was interviewing a roomful of South Carolina voters and talking to Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes about GOP candidate Fred Thompson. Then suddenly he changed the subject. "I'm gonna make your bosses nervous," Luntz said to Hannity and Colmes. He turned to the South Carolina voters. "Was it right to include Ron Paul in this debate, yes or no? Raise your hands if you say yes. How many of you say yes?" Almost all the hands in the room went up.
Columbo jumped to his feet. "Did you hear that?" he almost shouted. "He said, 'I'm gonna make your bosses nervous.' Their bosses are the top brass at Fox News. Why would they be nervous? Not 'angry,' not 'irritated,' but 'nervous.' As if the top executives at Fox News might get in trouble for showing respect to Ron Paul. Somebody's putting pressure on the network to discredit Ron Paul, somebody high up, high enough to make the bosses at Fox News 'nervous.'" He stared at the screen thoughtfully for a moment, then chomped on his cigar and sat down again.
"There's no doubt in my mind," Columbo said. "It's Dick Cheney who's pressuring Fox News. It's Dick Cheney who fed that tripe to The New Republic. It's Dick Cheney who's behind Karl Rove's smear of Barack Obama. The vice president is out to destroy the credibility of anyone who might convince Americans that we didn't have to invade Iraq and we don't have to stay there."
"Great work," we had to admit. "Once this writers' strike is over, you should really get your series back."
Editor's note: You might be interested in the earlier posts, "Ron Paul's tea party", "Ron Paul's good question" and "Ron Paul's military secret." You might also like to read "Shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded file cabinet."