The fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson's famous friendship recovered from the acrimonious presidential campaigns of 1796 and 1800 is a monument to 18th-century detachment and the mysterious power of genuine human fellowship.
From those first two contested general elections to the current presidential campaign, American politics has been a blood sport, and what we now call "negative advertising" has always been a weapon of choice. As any honest political consultant will tell you, there's a reason for that: Negative advertising works; it always has.
Even so, Jerome R. Corsi's controversial new book, "The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality," occupies a class of its own. Corsi, you might recall, was the co-author of "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry," the campaign diatribe that slimed the decorated Vietnam War veteran and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate's war record.
Corsi is frank about his motives for writing "The Obama Nation." As he told The New York Times last week: "The goal is to defeat Obama. I don't want Obama to be in office."
That's clear enough from the text. You can pretty well sum the whole thing up this way: The Democratic candidate is a deceitful jihadist drug addict who, if elected, plans to impose a black supremacist, socialist regime.
WHERE DID CORSI COME FROM?
Obama's campaign learned from Kerry's experience, and you can go to its Web site to see a point-by-point, factual rebuttal of Corsi's book. Other organizations - notably Media Matters - have posted similar analyses. It's pretty convincing stuff, not least because Corsi so frequently refers to the Illinois senator's own books and almost invariably gets it wrong.
What's far more interesting is how somebody like Corsi suddenly becomes a player in a presidential campaign. Start with the fact that the author isn't a conservative in the normal or respectable sense of that word. He's actually a regular on the far-right, hate fringe of Internet journalism, whose day job seems to be as a correspondent for a new extreme right-wing site where he specializes in stories about how George W. Bush is conspiring to eliminate the border between the United States and Mexico. (You really can't make this stuff up.) The project he put aside to write his anti-Obama screed was an expose of all the secrets about 9/11 your government is still keeping from you.
If the music you seem to hear playing in the background sounds familiar, it's because ... yes, you've crossed over into the Twilight Zone.
Actually, it's a little darker than that. Corsi doesn't just belong to the right's conspiratorial wing, he belongs to its racist, white-supremacist fringe. Over the past couple of years, he has written disparagingly about Muslims, Catholics and Jews, not to mention gays and lesbians. Muslims are "ragheads," the pope is "senile" and tolerates pedophilia and Jews ... well, you can imagine.
The fact of the matter is, though, that Corsi doesn't so much aspire to participate as to profit.
That brings us to one of the primary differences between that bitterly contested election of 1796 and this one. In former years, Americans' ideology was influenced by their participation in the economy. To put it crudely, business people tended to find a home in the Republican Party, working men and women in the Democratic Party. Today, we have a new class, one to which Corsi and his ilk belong, whose business is their ideology.
THE CASH FACTOR
"The Obama Nation" was written and printed because major American publishing houses have decided that there's money to be made in funding right-wing boutique imprints modeled after the Washington-based Regnery, which has made a small fortune stoking the hard-right furnace with combustible prose. Corsi's book is published by Threshold Editions, a division of Simon & Schuster, which hired right-wing political operative Mary Matalin to edit the imprint. Random House has a similar imprint in Crown Forum, and Penguin Group USA has Sentinel. Their business model - and this is all about business - is predicated on the existence of an echo chamber of right-wing radio and television shows willing to promote these publishers' products - however noxious. Beyond that is a network of conservative book clubs and organizations willing to place the sort of advance bulk orders for controversial books that will guarantee them a place on the best-seller lists.
It's just that sort of order that made "The Obama Nation" No. 1 on last week's New York Times best-seller list, and essentially "laundered" Corsi onto the respectable broadcast media's guest list.
Tim Rutten is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.