Monday, November 03, 2008

The aunt and the smear: The right-wing effort to make an issue of an Obama relative

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I didn't comment on the illegal aunt story over the weekend because the status of one of Obama's aunts isn't important in the context of the election. But allow me to review:

So Obama's aunt, Zeituni Onyango, is living in the U.S. illegally, having been denied asylum four years ago. Big deal. Well, it's a big deal fo Ms. Onyango, and I take nothing away from that, and I wish her well, but her status has no bearing on Obama's run for the presidency. The fact is, and I take him at his word here, Obama was not aware of his aunt's status. Ms. Onyango donated a small amount of money ($265) to the Obama campaign, but that money will be refunded (as it is illegal for non-permanent residents to donate to presidential campaigns -- I had a Green Card when I lived in the U.S., way back when, but it expired sometime after I returned to Canada, which is why I haven't been able to give money to Obama).

The whole "story" has been a right-wing smear. As TPM Muckraker reported on Saturday, it was The Times, a Rupert Murdoch-owned British newspaper, that first "broke" the story. "From there, the story quickly got taken up by the right-wing echo chamber. Fox News (also Murdoch-owned, of course), Drudge, the Boston Herald, and various conservative blogs -- as well as some mainstream outlets -- began breathlessly hyping the story." But The Times only reported that Ms. Onyango is living in a Boston public-housing project. It was the AP that broke the news of her illegal immigration status. And how did the AP come to acquire that information? As TPM notes, "it looks like someone in the Bush administration leaked the information, with the goal of throwing a last-minute wrench into Obama's campaign. And someone else confirmed it, with similar motives." (Josh Marshall has more here.) In other words, someone broke the law in order to smear Obama and benefit McCain.

One media outlet referred to "Obama's illegal immigrant aunt problem," and typical right-wing smearmongers like Michelle Malkin have kept up the hype, but the story is hardly any sort of election-altering October Surprise, and, thankfully, it has pretty much disappeared into obscurity, where it belongs. As Salon's Alex Koppelman pointed out, "John McCain's campaign is steering clear of the issue," probably preferring to let its surrogates in the right-wing media, including the blogosphere, push it, but, again, it didn't really go anywhere.

In desperation, any smear will do, of course, but this one, targeting a middle-aged Kenyan asylum-seeker with whom Obama apparently has no active relationship, didn't work.


UPDATE: From the Politico's Ben Smith, it looks like pro-McCain robocalls from a dubious Republican group are including Obama's aunt alongside Rev. Wright. So, yes, some are still trying to make an issue of it.

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