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Obama, Clinton, And That Novak Column

I'm in Iowa this week, like pretty much every Democratic candidate in the race. I spent yesterday and today with Obama, and will be with Hillary beginning this afternoon. (Edwards, Dodd, and Biden are also here--I may try to catch the latter at some point.) The big topic of conversation among the reporters covering him (as well as basically everyone in Washington, so far as I can tell) is the recent Bob Novak column suggesting the Clinton campaign has dirt on Obama that, in their infinite generosity, they are declining to use. Obama's first event of the day yesterday was a press conference ostensibly pegged to his endorsement from a regional UAW group, but which was dominated by the Novak column. Obama seemed pretty exercised about it, saying he won't stand for this kind of innuendo and repeatedly pointing out that it took the Clinton campaign three iterations to completely deny that they were behind it. Obama invoked Kerry's swift-boating in 2004 and said he was so quick to respond because this kind of thing can be all over the world in seconds on the Internet. As you might expect, there was some debate among the press corps here about whether Obama was so adamant because there might be some truth to the charge, or because he was trying to nip some ugly gossip in the bud. Whatever the case, he was probably right to approach it that way. The story hasn't just captivated the lurid imagination of Washington insiders. It's broken through to the local media here, too. (Though I guess that's partly a result of his press conference, too.)

My own take: This is just a little too convenient for Clinton to not be deeply suspicious of its provenance. Consider what we're talking about: A completely unspecific, exceedingly thinly-sourced allegation which the Clinton campaign isn't actually trying to disseminate, but, rather, trying to take credit for not disseminating. On top of that, Novak's column is a notorious destination for elaborate trial balloons, tactical leaks, and the creative musings of political operatives. There's nothing to stop any operative at any time from calling him up and saying they have some lurid detail about their opponent which, thanks to their good character, they have decided to take a pass on. It reminds me of a story the legendary ad man Jerry Della Femina once told me. When he was a struggling to launch his agency in the 1960s, Della Femina would call up Advertising Age, the big industry trade publication, unprompted and vehemently deny that he was about to land the GM account, or whatever. "The rumors that we're about to get GM are completely untrue," he'd say. "There's nothing to them." Occasionally this tack would work, and Ad Age would print a headline like, "Della Femina denies rumors of GM account," which, of course, dramatically increased the buzz around his agency. I could be wrong, but this strikes me as a similar ploy.

Update: I should clarify that Novak did not source the rumor to any employee of the Clinton campaign but, rather, "agents" of the campaign, which sounds sinister but could mean pretty much anybody. There's no evidence that the campaign itself had anything to do with it, though, as Obama pointed out, it did take them a little time to get that point across. My colleague John Judis informs me that Novak acknowledged today on Fox that the rumor came from "neutral Democrats," which would seem to exclude "agents" of Clinton, so who knows. It demonstrates the problem with having Novak as any sort of arbiter of who's saying what...

Second update: As Ben Smith points out, there is another obvious possibility here: The Obama people think this is a good story for them, since it highlights what they say is the problem with the Clinton way of doing business. They've been talking about it as much or more than anyone else, so they have to think talking about it benefits them on some level.

Third update: I finally had a chance to watch that Novak interview on Fox (you can, too, via Mark Halperin). Novak does say that his source is a neutral Democrat, but then adds that the source got the information from the Clinton campaign. So that explains the aforementioned discrepancy. Which is not to say there isn't a problem with having Novak report this kind of thing, just not that particular problem...

--Noam Scheiber