Washington: Karl Rove's blast at Hillary Clinton on Tuesday demonstrated how the game of political trickery manifests itself in the internet age. Allegation reported, allegation denied, outrage from the victimised party, the initial accusation repeated each and every time - a whispering campaign given full baying voice.
The Republican strategist's questioning of Clinton's health was a joint assault on the minds of voters and the heart of the would-be White House contender, and it probably worked, at least minimally, by injecting into the conversation something no one had been talking about, and spreading a negative assertion without any proof.
The New York Post reported on Monday night that Rove, in remarks to an assembled crowd last week, had repeatedly suggested that Clinton had suffered from a "traumatic brain injury" when she fell and suffered a concussion and blood clot in late 2012.
Or, as the Post headline succinctly put it: "Karl Rove: Hillary may have brain damage."
Rove based his diagnosis on special glasses Clinton wore after her concussion to lessen double vision - fallout of the concussion itself and one that was disclosed by Clinton. (He also told them Clinton had been hospitalised for 30 days, which was not true.)
By Tuesday morning, as Clinton aides pointed at her marathon schedule to insist she was operating at full strength, Rove was cleaning up around the edges. He said that he had never used the words "brain damage", yet he reasserted the bulk of his claim.
"This was a serious deal. She basically was out of action," he told Fox News, which beneath a picture of Clinton ran the headline "Health a 2016 hurdle?".
In the days shortly after her fall, former United Nations ambassador and leading conservative John Bolton accused Clinton of faking a ''diplomatic illness'' to avoid hearings on Capitol Hill on the Benghazi killings. Clinton later testified before the House and Senate foreign affairs committees.
Barring the release of audio, it is impossible to determine whether Rove uttered the words "brain damage", but it's also beside the point. The point was that through his words prospective 2016 voters were reminded of Clinton's 2012 health issues and, by extension, a host of loosely related things, including her age (69 were she to be elected in November 2016) and her family's past resistance to transparency.
Rove is certainly not the first to employ the strategy. In 1988, Ronald Reagan, from a White House podium no less, gave credence to rumours fanned by conservatives that Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis had undergone psychiatric treatment. Asked if Dukakis should release medical records, Reagan replied: "Look, I'm not going to pick on an invalid."
He later said he was "just trying to be funny" but the damage was done.
More recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada demonstrated a Rovian strategic bent when - without proof - he repeatedly asserted during the last presidential campaign that Republican nominee Mitt Romney had not paid income taxes.
Romney insisted that he'd always paid a federal tax rate of at least 13 per cent. When that didn't work, he was essentially forced to release his 2011 tax return, giving Democrats even more opportunities to publicly dissect his sizable income.
Politics has never been driven by moral virtue, of course; its operatives bully and threaten and lie outright. But with the world connected electronically in a way that would have drawn gapes even a generation ago, the accusations can explode with a vehemence that is uncontainable.
Which is the point.
Los Angeles Times
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter