By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
The Republican National Committee, grumbling John McCain staffers and conservative bloggers have tried for months to label Barack Obama as a serial exaggerator and heir to Al Gore, whom Republicans tarred in 2000 as someone who claimed to have discovered the Love Canal disaster and invented the Internet.
It just wasn't sticking. But yesterday, they thought they'd finally caught him red-handed.
Speaking in New Mexico on Memorial Day, Obama said a great-uncle had helped to liberate the Auschwitz death camp at the end of World War II. "I had a uncle who was one of the, who was part of the first American troops to go into Auschwitz and liberate the concentration camps," Obama said (a YouTube clip of the remarks quickly went viral online).
He continued: "And the story in my family is that when he came home, he just went into the attic, and he didn't leave the house for six months. All right? Now, obviously something had affected him deeply, but at the time, there just weren't the kinds of facilities to help somebody work through that kind of pain."
That may be a fact, the RNC noted gleefully -- but only if Obama's uncle had served in the Red Army of Joseph Stalin, which liberated Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945.
Obama's campaign said yesterday that he had erred in naming the camp but not in describing the role of his great-uncle, who partook in the liberation of Buchenwald.
"Senator Obama's family is proud of the service of his grandfather and uncles in World War II -- especially the fact that his great uncle was a part of liberating one of the concentration camps at Buchenwald. Yesterday he mistakenly referred to Auschwitz instead of Buchenwald in telling of his personal experience of a soldier in his family who served heroically," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement. It also clarified that the great-uncle served in the 89th Infantry Division that "liberated Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald."
For conservative bloggers, however, Obama had gone too far. "Sickening," huffed Red State. "Barack Obama must be the most gaffe-prone politician in memory," reported PowerLine. "The Young Gaffer Sees Dead People," chortled Hot Air.
Obama campaign aides were indignant that Republicans had pounced on what they called an innocent mistake in relating his family history. Tommy Vietor, an Obama spokesman, decried "using the Holocaust and concentration camps as a political football."
The RNC appeared to temper its condemnation after Obama's clarification. Initially, RNC spokesman Alex Conant blasted "Barack Obama's dubious claim" as "inconsistent with world history."
"Obama's frequent exaggerations and outright distortions raise questions about his judgment and his readiness to lead as commander in chief," Conant said yesterday afternoon.
By evening, his tone had changed.
"At times it appears that Barack Obama inaccurately recalls his own history and American history, so it's important that we point to the facts. In this case, we're happy to see that he took the time to set the record straight," Conant said.