For the first time, Hillary Clinton's campaign has responded to the online rumors about her health. It did so early Tuesday afternoon by sending reporters the text of "Fake Clinton Medical Records," a story at FactCheck.org. It did so again Tuesday evening, with a lengthy rundown of the theories, links to sources that debunked them, and an official statement from Clinton's doctor, Lisa Bardack -- whose name appeared on forged "medical records" that had been spread online.
"As Secretary Clinton's long time physician, I released a medical statement during the campaign indicating that she is in excellent health," said Bardack. "I have recently been made aware of allegedly ‘leaked’ medical documents regarding Secretary Clinton with my name on them. These documents are false, were not written by me and are not based on any medical facts. To reiterate what I said in my previous statement, Secretary Clinton is in excellent health and fit to serve as President of the United States."
Quoting from press criticism and fact-checks, the campaign dismissed the health rumors as conspiracies that were contradicted by Clinton's obvious stamina.
“While it is dismaying to see the Republican nominee for president push deranged conspiracy theories in a foreign policy speech, it’s no longer surprising,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign's communications director. “Donald Trump is simply parroting lies based on fabricated documents promoted by Roger Stone and his right wing allies."
The campaign spooned this out after online theories about the candidate -- most of them based on sketchy analysis of some photos and video clips -- bubbled up on Fox News. In speeches, Donald Trump began questioning Clinton's "stamina," and making wink-wink references to how she referred to a botched answer about the investigation of her e-mail server as a "short-circuit." In a very short time, the theories moved from fringe websites, to the Drudge Report, to Sean Hannity's prime time show, to the mouth of the Republican nominee for president.
Clinton and her husband have been magnets for conspiracy theories for longer than some current campaign reporters have been alive. But the funnel that carries "undernews" to the mainstream is sturdier than ever. The process is identical to the one that "Hillary's health" went through -- the absurd becomes news, because people start talking about it. It's up to the campaign whether to react to the rumors, or to hunker down and hope they go away.
The case study in how not to respond came from John Kerry's 2004 campaign. When Swift Boat Veterans for Truth emerged, early in that year, they had the bearing of a fringe movement -- a roll-out at the National Press Club, and little mainstream coverage. In August, it gained steam from new donors and from fresh coverage in conservative media.
Bob Shrum, Kerry's strategist, has always admitted that the slow response to the Swift Vets was an error. "It was a mistake drive by complicated factors," he said in an interview this week. The campaign went dark in August, and some strategists disagreed that the issue could grow into a problem. What no one appreciated was that similar questions about Kerry had arisen in 1996, and been squelched after Elmo Zumwalt, who had pinned the Silver Star on Kerry, held a news conference denouncing alternate theories of what Kerry did in the Vietnam War. The problem in 2004? "Zumwalt was dead," said Shrum.
In 2008, Barack Obama's campaign fielded far more conspiracy questions than Kerry's; the nadir was a question at a press scrum about the existence of a bogus "whitey tape" that reportedly captured a racial slur from Michelle Obama. But the only one the campaign was pressured into responding to was the rumor that Obama was born in Kenya, which would have rendered him ineligible for the presidency.
"My recollection of the short form release is that while the conspiracy theories at first seemed laughable, they quickly gained traction," wrote Tommy Vietor, then a spokesman for the campaign, in an email. "That was in large part thanks to Fox and conservative sites on the internet. And it went hand-in-hand with idiocy like this:
"I think questions about his birthplace and eligibility started to show up in polling, our field program, etc," said Vietor, who eventually helped the campaign obtain the short-form version of Obama's birth certificate from Hawaii.
In 2012, Mitt Romney's campaign came to see a conspiracy theory in the frequent questions about the candidate's tax returns. Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) spread a rumor that Romney might not have paid any taxes whatsoever in a recent year. That, said campaign strategist Stuart Stevens, did not actually force Romney's hand. But it was irritating.
"Romney released 2010 [returns] in January of 2012 and said he'd release 2012 when ready," said Stevens. "That's what he did. It is amazing that Reid literally -- as VP would say -- quoted Joe McCarthy on Senate floor and nobody really cared."