WASHINGTON -- "A lie can travel halfway around the world," Mark Twain is said to have exclaimed, "while the truth is putting on its shoes." What an optimist he was. In this age of the Internet, lies go around the globe many times before the truth can even find its shoes.
Just ask Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. Just as Illinois' rising superstar senator announced his White House bid, an anti-Obama smear campaign was percolating in cyberspace and popping up in countless e-mail boxes, including mine.
And by the time Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York announced her presidential bid Saturday, the Obama rumor had taken on new legs in the mainstream media, thanks to an unfounded accusation linking the rumor to "the Hillary Clinton camp."
The Web site of the conservative magazine Insight alleged that Democrats "connected" to the New York senator had discovered that Mr. Obama had studied at a madrassa, a Muslim religious school, for four years while living in Indonesia as a kid and didn't want anyone to know about it.
Besides its incendiary implications of anti-Muslim paranoia, the allegation of an Obama cover-up and the Clinton outing is simply wrong, wrong and wrong.
First, Mr. Obama was not secretly educated in a radical Islamic school when he was growing up in Indonesia. That was confirmed this week by CNN senior international correspondent John Vause, reporting from Jakarta. Mr. Vause found that the Besuki School is not and never was a madrassa. It is a secular public school attended mostly by Muslims.
That's not surprising, since Indonesia is the world's largest majority-Muslim country. Yet about a fourth of the school's enrollment was and is non-Muslim, like Mr. Obama.
Insight also said Mr. Obama's political rivals "are seeking to prove" that the school promoted Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam that fuels many Islamic terrorists. But Mr. Vause observed on CNN that "I've been to those madrassas in Pakistan. ... This school is nothing like that."
Yet, no matter how many facts you dig up, truth has a tough time standing up to a juicy rumor. By the time CNN had debunked the unfounded allegations, they had been repeated by Fox News, The New York Post, CNN Headline News and other outlets. To hear some of the chatter, you would have thought that Mrs. Clinton's campaign had all but outed Mr. Obama as an al-Qaida agent.
Welcome to the big leagues, senators. Whisper campaigns are a sad reality of politics. Sen. John McCain knows. Vicious rumors that were traced back to the George W. Bush camp helped undo the Arizona Republican's momentum in South Carolina's critical primary campaign in 2000.
The Internet only deepens the targeted candidate's dilemma: If you deny rumors that are just bubbling around cyberspace, that public denial makes them more newsworthy in the mainstream media. Sen. John Kerry learned that in 2004, when his candid denials on Don Imus' radio show of rumored hanky-panky with a young female staffer helped to spread the unfounded rumors. The rumor was not sufficiently newsworthy for The New York Times and others to report, but the response to it was.
But if politicians don't respond, they risk the corrosive effect that unanswered charges can have on their campaign. Mr. Kerry, again, offered an excellent example by failing to respond to attack ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth for more than two weeks.
And Mrs. Clinton is no political patsy. Although quite a few Democrats sound nervous about her vulnerabilities, one of her strengths as a campaigner is her experience, along with that of her ex-president husband, at weathering political storms.
Mr. Obama is just beginning to learn. Worse is yet to come. If empty rumors are the worst that his enemies can come up with in their desperate attempts to chip away at his amazingly pristine image, he's doing remarkably well. But fasten your seat belt, senator. It's going to be a bumpy ride.
With so much mudslinging a year before the first primary and caucus votes are cast, this presidential contest will be a big test not only for the candidates but also for the rest of us.
There's a lot of speculation going on about whether we Americans are ready to elect a black or a female president. The real question is whether we are ready to be fair to all candidates, despite the spin-doctors, mudslingers and rumormongers who betray our hopes and play on our fears.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.