2008 Memo: Don’t Mess With Israel

Did John Edwards risk the implosion of his 2008 presidential campaign by stating that Israel is the biggest threat to world peace? His staff just sent me an email rejecting the charge, a sure sign they are very worried it could spread.

John Edwards
John Edwards may have made a damaging gaffe

One of the most striking differences between the UK and US is the staunch backing here for Israel among Democrats and Republicans alike. Pro-Israel groups are highly influential. Many of the biggest US campaign contributors are Jewish-Americans in Manhattan and Hollywood. Unequivocal support for Israel is a virtual sine qua non for being elected nationally.

Would Edwards be that foolish? What did he say? It’s not yet clear and even in this YouTube age, there might be no video clip because the offending words were allegedly uttered at a private event. If things were as they have been portrayed, then he’s in deep doo doo – even if it wasn’t exactly a Mel Gibson moment.

In classic 21st Century fashion, the claim spread like wildfire via the Internet. First, it was buried in indirect speech and in the 5th paragraph of a Variety column.

Peter Bart, the Variety columnist, referred to a fundraiser for Edwards held by Adam Venit, a partner at the agency Endeavor along with Ari Emanuel, a Barack Obama supporter whose brother Congressman Rahm Emanuel is a prominent Hillary Clinton ally (for now at least).

Hollywood, you see, is divided over who to support in 2008 (this was the subject of the column). A few are even considering voting for – gasp – a Republican – most notably Rudy Giuliani, who is set to be endorsed by Brad Grey, of Sopranos fame.

But I digress. The key Variety paragraph read: “The aggressively photogenic John Edwards was cruising along, detailing his litany of liberal causes last week until, during question time, he invoked the “I” word – Israel. Perhaps the greatest short-term threat to world peace, Edwards remarked, was the possibility that Israel would bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. As a chill descended on the gathering, the Edwards event was brought to a polite close.”

This was picked up by National Review Online and cited as a “little gem” (http://hillaryspot.nationalreview.com/) . Next, boom – the megasite Drudge Report  saw it and linked with a headline: “Edwards: Israel greatest short-term threat to world peace.”

The Edwards campaign email, sent out within an hour or so of the item appearing on Drudge, stated that Variety “inaccurately quotes Senator John Edwards”. Of course, it didn’t quote him – it reported his speech. And accusing someone of misquoting is dangerous when you aren’t prepared to produce the real quote yourself.

Jonathan Prince, Edwards’s press secretary, said in the email: “The January 19th Variety article is erroneous. Senator Edwards did not say nor does he believe that the greatest short-term threat to world peace is the possibility that Israel would bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Senator Edwards said, as he has in the past, that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon is one of the greatest short-term threats to world peace.”

This may well not lay the matter to rest because it did not include Edwards’s words, which his staff presumably taped.

I’m currently reading Paul Taylor’s superb “See How They Run”, about the 1988 US election campaign. In it, he reminds the reader of the old adage that you don’t issue a denial of a rumour or an erroneous story because that gives the press the hook to write about it.

That that no longer holds true – partly because of the internet but also because the 1992 Clinton campaign “war room” and New Labour’s subsequent “rapid rebuttal unit” in the 1997 election showed that striking back swiftly and fiercely pays dividends.

But to kill a rumour rather than give it more legs, the rebuttal needs to be comprehensive and persuasive. Has Edwards achieved that? Perhaps not.


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