An EthicsDaily.com reader recently forwarded to me an e-mail she received about John Kerry. She wanted to know if the story was an urban legend.
“I Hope None Of You Were Going To Vote For Him,” began the story in question. “But If You Were, Think About What He Is Saying.” It mentioned that Kerry viewed Reagan’s body in repose at the presidential library in Simi Valley, and then it attributed the following to Kerry:
“This moment in Simi Valley is a moment of truth,” Kerry said, according to the e-mail. “Not just for my campaign, but for the future of my party as well. For some of us, this may be our only chance to confirm the demise of the man who is solely responsible for turning the American people away from liberal philosophy. As democrats, we need to put small differences aside and be certain that this man is truly gone. Next, we must reclaim our country from the church-goers, the middle America folks and the uneducated conservative masses.”
Several urban legend trackers, including the Urban Legends Reference Pages and the urban legends section at About.com, categorized the comments as false.
The Urban Legends References Pages noted that, after Reagan’s death, Kerry actually suspended campaign activities for one week out of respect.
Kerry did attend the service for Reagan at Washington’s National Cathedral, and he did visit the Reagan Presidential Library to pay his respects.
In truth, a few days after Reagan died, Kerry referred to Reagan as a “very likable guy,” according to an Associated Press article.
“I didn’t agree with a lot of the things he was doing, obviously,” Kerry said in the article, but he added that he and Reagan got along well, worked together on issues, and that he visited the White House quite a few times during Reagan’s eight years in office.
So, where did Kerry’s alleged remarks about Reagan come from? Like a number of urban legends, they came from a spoofing source.
In this case, the remarks originated with a spoof news story on a satirical Web site called www.kerrycore.com. (The name of this Web site was actually taken from a Kerry campaign initiative to recruit volunteers. The legitimate Kerry Core initiative is now part of the Online Volunteer Center at the Kerry Web site.)
The spoof story—”Kerry Endures Heat and Low-Life Scum to Make Sure Reagan is Really Dead”—purports to detail the exhausting measures Kerry took in order to verify that Reagan had actually died.
The Web site contains a disclaimer noting that it is a “parody” and is “intended for entertainment purposes only.”
“The articles, comments and information entered upon these Web pages should NOT be repeated as the truth or be taken as a real quote, article, event, concept or happening,” the disclaimer continues.
Yet, that is exactly what happened in this case and many others.
John Kerry’s own Web site, www.johnkerry.com, doesn’t deal with all of the urban legends surrounding his bid for the presidency. The Web site has a number of sections, including a “Rapid Response Center,” in which the Kerry campaign defends itself against accusations and what it considers misleading statements.
This “d-bunker” approach, as the Kerry campaign calls it, appears to be less concerned with more outrageous legends like the Reagan statement and more concerned with other stories, especially the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign seeking to discredit Kerry’s military credentials.
Urban legends trackers are keeping tabs on the Swift Vets story as well, but, unlike the Kerry-Reagan story, it isn’t so easily labeled as “true” or “false.”
It is true in the sense that such an organization does exist, that the veterans claiming Kerry is dishonest are real people, and that they have made the statements attributed to them.
However, as the Urban Legends Reference Pages note, “the substance of most of these quotes is an expression of opinion, not something objectively classifiable as right or wrong.”
To make the waters of truth even murkier, real events are sometimes confused with fabricated ones.
For example, Kerry and Jane Fonda both did attend a 1970 anti-war rally in Pennsylvania, and there is a legitimate picture that places them both at the event. There is also a fabricated picture of Kerry and Fonda sharing a speaker’s platform, which they never did as far as we know.
As we can see, words lie, pictures lie and people lie. Words, pictures and people can also tell the truth.
In 2004, the task of discerning the difference isn’t easy.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.