Today’s Boston Globe story about the right-wing whispering campaign suggesting that Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has suffered from serious panic attacks while in office (there is no evidence) calls to mind the rumors about Michael Dukakis’ mental health that circulated during his 1988 presidential campaign.
Dukakis’ Republican opponent, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, helmed one of the dirtiest campaigns in the modern era. Everyone remembers the racist Willie Horton ad, but there were also rumors — grounded in nothing — that Dukakis suffered from depression.
As recalled in this retrospective by Dylan Scott in Stat News, President Ronald Reagan got in on the act, pushing into the mainstream a conspiracy theory that emanated from LaRouchie right:
In early August, in those pre-Twitter days, Reagan made the gossip front-page news. The president said at a White House press conference, in response to a question about Dukakis, that he didn’t want to “pick on an invalid.”
Reagan quickly apologized, but the story was off and running. The New York Times and Washington Post wrote editorials denouncing the attacks. The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald published lengthy stories about the rumors and their source.
Dukakis’ 17-point polling lead over Bush collapsed, and, of course, Bush went on to win that November. As Dukakis said, “you don’t drop eight points in a week for nothing.”
The claim may have resonated because there was just enough there for the conspiracists to dig into. Dukakis’ wife, Kitty Dukakis, had long suffered from depression, and, as the Stat piece noted, biographies of Dukakis said that “he had been unhappy after his brother died in 1973 and, again in 1978, after he lost his reelection for governor.” Nothing unusual about that, of course.
So, too, with Wu. Her mother has struggled with mental illness. And in January the Globe published a story that included this line: “A decade ago, when Wu first mentioned to someone outside her close circle that she was considering a run for office, she had a panic attack; she had to walk across the room and crouch down to calm herself.” In other words, years ago and hardly unusual behavior — and also a long way from landing in the hospital, as the current rumors claim.
The false rumors about Wu have almost but not quite broken into the mainstream, according to the Globe’s Emma Platoff. Greg Hill of WEEI Radio (93.7 FM) mentioned them sympathetically, perhaps unaware that there was nothing to them. Platoff also cites a column in late January by the Boston Herald’s Joe Battenfeld, who wrote: “Unfortunately for the Harvard-educated Wu, there isn’t an Ivy League seminar or class to learn how to grapple with these anxiety-inducing problems.” But having read Battenfeld’s column in its entirety, I don’t agree that he was making any reference to the rumors.
One unanswerable question about all this is whether a major media outlet like the Globe should amplify the rumors. Platoff addresses that:
There are those who believe this Globe story will worsen the problem. Experts say it can be a mistake to mention this kind of misinformation in a reputable newspaper; that even debunking a rumor grants it oxygen. But as this false claim spreads through the city’s power centers, it has already leaked into public discourse. And the mayor, who has been open about her mother’s struggle with schizophrenia, was glad to correct the record, saying it was important to call out both mental health stigma and misinformation.
She also quotes Wu herself, who says it’s better to address the rumors head-on than to let them fester. “I want to be transparent about the presence of these tactics, even today, because we need to acknowledge it to be able to change it,” Wu told Platoff. “It does feel connected to larger trends in politics and international politics: If you just repeat something that’s false enough times, at least you can sow a little doubt in the broader public’s mind. And that’s a really dangerous place to be.”
I don’t know whether putting it out there is a good idea or not. As Wu herself acknowledges, it’s already partly out there, so perhaps it’s better to address it head-on. Still, people are going to believe what they want to believe. We are long past the time when facts made any difference. We weren’t even there in 1988.