ONE of the charter members of what a political pundit referred to as the "Willie Horton Alumni Association" is at it again.
He is Roger Ailes, chairman of the "fair and balanced" Fox News network, and his manipulation this time is spreading the perception that a certain black Democratic presidential candidate of foreign extraction is, well, one of "them."
You know, Sen. Barack Obama or Osama or whatever his name is.
Mr. Ailes' deliberate misconfabulation of the Illinois lawmaker's name during a speech to a broadcast awards banquet in Washington has been portrayed as merely a joke, albeit an edgy one since it reflected as pointedly on President Bush as it did on Senator Obama.
Among observations on several politicians, he said, "It is true that Barack Obama is on the move. I don't know if it's true that President Bush called [Pakistan President Pervez] Musharraf and said, 'Why can't we catch this guy?'"
Not bad for political humor, but the double entendre would have rung funnier had not Mr. Ailes' cable network previously broadcast as fact erroneous reports that Senator Obama had, as a youth, attended a radical Muslim school in Indonesia.
We don't care to give him too much credit, but such studied character assassination is unlikely to be an accident, coming as it did from a veteran political hired gun like Mr. Ailes.
Back in 1988, he was media adviser to Mr. Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, and helped produce what lives on as one of most despicable political spots in recent history - the Willie Horton ad.
The ad, for those who have forgotten, used the image of a black convict to unfairly paint the elder Mr. Bush's opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime. Instead of spreading racial fear, Mr. Ailes now is using not-so-subliminal word play to link Senator Obama and a well-known terrorist.
Warriors in today's slash-and-burn culture of politics don't pull any punches. What once were regarded as serious personal slurs now substitute for fair comment.
Professional media manipulators like Mr. Ailes are good at steering public opinion, and they will continue to ply their slimy trade if allowed to disguise such vitriol as routine commentary.
But these "nattering nabobs of negativism," to co-opt a slogan from the Nixon era, cannot succeed if the American people make a serious effort to stay informed about the presidential candidates and reject such insidious slander.