The Republican consultant who helped sink the 1988 Dukakis campaign with his infamous "Willie Horton ad" is using his attack dog skills against Barack Obama. A web ad created by Floyd Brown, founder of a conservative political advocacy group called the National Campaign Fund, accuses the presumptive Democratic nominee of covering up his Muslim past. The ad relies on a mixture of half-truth, innuendo, and dramatic headlines rolling across the screen to depict Obama as fundamentally "untrustworthy."
As with his 1988 ad attacking Michael Dukakis for being soft on crime, Brown has grounded his assault on Barack Obama on a seemingly solid fact. It is true that the Associated Press reported, in passing back in January, that Obama was "enrolled as a Muslim" in a Catholic school in Indonesia in 1967. He was six years' old at the time. The bulk of the AP article was devoted to rebutting rumors that the Illinois senator had attended an Islamic madrassa while growing up in Indonesia.
Documents viewed by the AP showed that students attending the Fransiskus Assisis Catholic school were registered under one of five different religions: Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic or Protestant. Obama, then known as Barry, attended the school from 1st through 3rd grade as student 203. He later enrolled in Public Elementary School Menteng No. 1, a school incorrectly described by the Washington Times Insight magazine and Fox News as an Islamic madrassa.
The Brown ad misses out key facts that cast a very different light on Obama's Muslim connections. At the Catholic school, he was required to participate in Catholic rituals and pray four times a day. Teachers quoted by the Chicago Tribune said that he was probably registered as a Muslim because this was the religion of his then-Indonesian step-father, Lolo Soetero. Like many Indonesians, Soetero was a rather lax Muslim who drank and did not abide by the strict tenets of the faith.
More importantly, the Brown ad attaches far too much importance to an entry in a ledger written under unknown circumstances more than 40 years ago. The Tribune report notes that the ledger entry was "rife with errors." It listed Obama as an Indonesian, gave an inaccurate name for his previous school, and made no mention of his mother. It is unclear who wrote the ledger entry, which can be viewed at the school but is unavailable on-line.
While historians generally prefer written evidence to oral evidence, documents can also be misleading, or simply inaccurate, on occasion. As I mentioned in a previous post, there is no record of John McCain's birth in the Panama Canal Zone in the records of the Canal Zone Health Department, now available at the National Archives. After reviewing all the available evidence, I nevertheless concluded that McCain was born in the Canal Zone, as he has stated.
It seems clear that Obama, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, was exposed to many cultural and religious influences as a child. But he appears to have shown little interest in organized religion until he "found Christ," in the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in the mid-80s. The dominant influence in his life was neither his father (whom he barely knew) or his stepfather, but his mother, Ann Dunham, a free-spirited type he once described as a "secular humanist."
The Obama campaign says they believe that the Muslim notation was made in the ledger because that was the nominal religion of Barack's stepfather, now deceased. Campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor said that Obama "is not, and was never, a Muslim." The campaign yesterday established a new website, Fight the Smears, to counter such rumors.
The Pinocchio Test
The Floyd Brown ad is evidently a preview of a line of attack that will be sharpened and reprised between now and November. For a more sophisticated, or at least more detailed, variant of the "Obama was a Moslem" argument, see the posts of conservative Middle East expert Daniel Pipes (son of Harvard professor Richard Pipes.) Both Brown and Pipes base their arguments and conclusions on factoids that have appeared in the mainstream media. But they make no attempt to weigh the evidence fairly.
Barring fresh revelations, the Obama campaign's explanation for the "Muslim" annotation beside Barack's name in the Catholic school ledger seems reasonable.
Three Pinocchios for Floyd Brown.