The nation was left reeling yesterday by the revelation that the presidential election of 2008 was a hoax. The shocking announcement came when White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that Barack Obama has been working in secret with conservative provocateur James O'Keefe since 2007.
The long-running hoax is the most elaborate yet in a series of recent sting operations by primarily right-of-center gadflies that have embarrassed organizations including ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and National Public Radio.
Those stunts, as well as the prank call to Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin that was captured on tape last month, proved to be sources of personal or institutional embarrassment. Historians warned yesterday that the latest caper may inspire a sense of national shame.
Origins of a hoax
Carney said the scam entailed pulling together demographic, social, cultural, and policy characteristics to create the most exaggerated Democratic candidate possible without stepping over the line into caricature.
"By combining empty, touchy-feely slogans like 'hope' and 'change' with far-left-wing policy planks and presenting them in the person of a racial minority from a major Midwest city with an Ivy League background, we thought we might be able to make a good showing in Iowa and New Hampshire, maybe even capture the Democratic nomination," Carney told reporters. "But the entire country? No. We never, ever for even a second imagined the American people would elect someone who had served only half a term in the U.S. Senate to be the leader of the entire free world."
Obama won the presidency with 52.9 percent of the popular vote, defeating Republican nominee John McCain, who received 45.7 percent.
"All you guys in the press were so giddy about it," Carney continued, "we couldn't really just announce that the whole thing was a big fat joke, you know? I mean, how would that look?"
Contacted by phone, O'Keefe said he, too, was surprised the hoax had lasted as long as it did.
"I thought people would catch on in the early days, like with the clinging-to-guns stuff," said O'Keefe, referring to an incident at a San Francisco fundraiser in which candidate Obama said small-town Americans "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them."
O'Keefe said he also expected the ruse would be unmasked when Obama said that "under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket," and again when Obama claimed, "I've now been in 57 (U.S.) states," with "one left to go."
"We modeled the 57-states gaffe on Dan Quayle's 'potatoe' mistake," said O'Keefe, referring to a 1992 incident at a Trenton, N.J., elementary school in which then-Vice President Dan Quayle added an "e" to "potato." "We figured Obama would become a national laughingstock like Quayle, (but we) underestimated the tendency of the press and the public to forgive mistakes by people they like."
Victims of the fabrication stretch around the globe. "President" Obama has held numerous meetings with foreign heads of state, among them Chinese President Hu Jintao, leaders of NATO and the G8, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee also was taken in, awarding Obama the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009—only months after he had taken office and just weeks before he announced an escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
Reaction from abroad yesterday was swift.
"I'm not surprised," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"Well, that explains everything, doesn't it?" said British Prime Minister David Cameron. "I mean, really now."
A prank gone too far
As the 2008 campaign wore on, O'Keefe said, insiders grew worried Obama might actually win. They began dropping hints that the candidate was just a parody. They had him complain about the price of arugula to Iowa farmers. When that didn't work, Obama went bowling, scored a 37, and then joked that the almost impossibly poor performance "was like the Special Olympics or something."
"A few right-wing bloggers made a big deal out of it," O'Keefe said. "Nobody else seemed to notice."
The hint-dropping campaign intensified after Obama took office. Justin Whittemore, a former White House staffer who was part of the elaborate plot, said advisers began copying policy positions straight from The New York Times and the liberal Center for American Progress in an increasingly transparent attempt to provoke suspicion.
"We've tried everything," O'Keefe said. "Nationalizing health care, the stimulus, a $4 trillion budget, insane levels of debt, even high-speed rail. No matter how ridiculous a proposal we come up with, people take it seriously."
Asked why he is pulling the plug now, O'Keefe replied that the good of the country was at stake. "Things have gotten way out of hand," he said. "People are talking about a second term now. It's just gone way too far—even for me."