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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

McCain hiring ghost-writers to manufacture letters-to-the-editor?

I hope this is not normal practice in a political campaign. I really do. From Salon:

After a series of outings for Obama and a first mission as a phone banker for John McCain, I returned to McCain's headquarters in Arlington, Va. The offer was too alluring to delay -- they wanted to put me into action as a ghostwriter.

The assignment is simple: We are going to write letters to the editor and we are allowed to make up whatever we want -- as long as it adds to the campaign. After today we are supposed to use our free moments at home to create a flow of fictional fan mail for McCain. "Your letters," says Phil Tuchman, "will be sent to our campaign offices in battle states. Ohio. Pennsylvania. Virginia. New Hampshire. There we'll place them in local newspapers."

Margriet Oostveen, the author of the piece, describes a letter she wrote about Sarah Palin in which, like Palin, she claimed she had a son in Iraq.

Ms. Oostveen does not, of course, have a son in Iraq.

Ms. Oostveen's column was first published in a Dutch newspaper. The piece on Salon is a translation. Salon asked for "documentary proof" of Ms. Oostveen's claims, and she provided emails, sample letters the campaign reportedly provided to her, talking points, a set of guidelines from Phil Tuchman (a member of McCain's staff), and so on. You can see those on Salon here.

A spokeswoman for the McCain campaign has also confirmed that Ms. Oostveen worked for them, saying only that she didn't properly identify herself as a journalist before she was hired.

If this is a hoax, it's a very elaborate one. Is using a network of ghost-writers to manufacture phony letters-to-the-editor in support of a candidate a common campaign tactic?

(Evidence plus examples below the fold)



The worst of the letters Oostveen claims to have written:

Dear editor,

Being the on-in-a-million executive supermom is not even the biggest quality of Sarah Palin. Her biggest plus to me is that, being amazingly smart and qualified, she managed to remain a woman like us. She is the PTA running hockey moms. She is the working mothers of special needs children. She is every caring mother of a challenging teenager. And most of all, she is just like any mother of a child who deploys to Iraq in the service of this country.

My son too, is there.

And my heart needs him back safe so much.

But when I see him again, I also want to see his face glow with pride. Just like the day he told me he enlisted.

That is why Senator John McCain could count on my vote from day one.

With Sarah Palin, I have even more reason to trust in victory. She represents my heart.


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Posted by Terrence Watson on September 24, 2008 | Permalink


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"I hope this is not normal practice in a political campaign. I really do."

Surely you realize that this has likely been standard practice for all political campaigns since editors were invented.

Human nature transcends partisan stereotypes.

Posted by: Canadian Observer | 2008-09-24 9:47:28 PM


I know, I know, I'm as cynical as anyone. But I was also thinking: if this goes on all the time, why is this the first I've heard of it? Surely Oostveen wouldn't be the first to spill the beans, right?

Jaws tells me that most campaign workers are kept in check because if they DID expose the practice, they'd be blacklisted from ever working on another campaign. However, at the same time, don't they have friends or other confidants who would let something slip?

Finally, it sounds like McCain was basically outsourcing the work. Even if campaign workers have manufactured letters in the past, perhaps the interests of those who did so were so wrapped up in the fortunes of the candidate they had no incentive to reveal the practice.

At the very least, Oostveen's story, if true, shows that they were not delegating this work in the best, most careful way possible. That in itself is a little disappointing.



Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-09-24 9:55:25 PM

This is VERY common, companies do it too when in crisis they pay people to write in support. Commercial bloggers pay people to write comments on their blogs and other people's it's all forms of astroturfing and if you didn't think it was happening from both the McCain and Obama camps you're incredibly naive.

Posted by: Pete | 2008-09-24 10:34:31 PM

This is very common. Back in the day, when I was more plugged in to BC politics on both sides, I could identify by voice 90% of the callers to talk radio shows as partisan operatives on one side or the other.

Posted by: Adam Yoshida | 2008-09-24 10:51:24 PM

Yup. Happens all the time. I myself ghostwrote some letters for a Clerk of Court race we had locally.

FWIW, the person actually signing his/her name to the letter has to approve of the verbiage. You can't just invent people out of whole cloth.

Posted by: D.J. McGuire | 2008-09-25 8:26:34 AM

Pete: I'm not sure how common it is typically for races, but the Obama camp does actively ask them to write letters, but as themselves, not masquerading as other people. The same journalist who found this out about McCain had previously worked under the Obama campaign as well.

Posted by: Alvin | 2008-09-25 12:25:42 PM

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