Have you have seen the email floating around (see below) about a certain politician’s horse-theif ancestor “Remus,” “explained” by the campaign as a “famous cowboy” whose “business empire” included the “acquisition of valuable equestrian assets”? Though the bit was obviously intended to “out” the politician and his campaign for cynical spin, I was actually quite amused and impressed by the genuinely creative ways in which an otherwise nefarious past was repackaged, in particular the sentence that described the ne’erdowell’s death by hanging as having “passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.” (The kicker of the email is a picture that purports to be the only known photo of the man standing on the gallows in Montana territory.) I liked it so much I was planning to write it up as an example of the brilliant use of rhetoric and writing—until, that is, I learned it wasn’t true.
According to snopes.com, the story has been circulated many times in the last decade or so—first (or at least in the first instance they document), the Montana swindler was a relative of Tipper Gore or Hillary Rodham Clinton, depending upon which email you received back in 2000. Since then, the long-lost uncle has had a few name changes and been linked to George W. Bush (and of course H.W.), Alaska’s Ted Stevens, Canadian politician Stephane Dion, Joe Biden, and, in the version I received this weekend, Harry Reid. So suddenly the narrative—or, really, my narrative—had to change from political rhetoric to urban legend.
There is a lot to say about such legends or rumors and how they circulate both in social networks and electronic circles—indeed, Gary Alan Fine wrote a bit for us in Contexts on the topic not too long ago. It is curious how such ideas resonate and make their rounds, playing off of what we want to believe as much as anything else. To take hold, even rumors need to be framed correctly for their audience. Would I have dismissed this one immediately had the party of the politician in question been different, either springing to their defense or assuming it was 100% correct? Would I have taken it more seriously had it not been written with such glee and humor? Would it not have stuck had it been done up sloppily, a quick statement: “Harry Reid’s distant relative was a horse thief. His campaign has been really weird in acknowledging it, slipping around the facts to say only that the relative was a “famous cowboy” who maintained “horse assets” and died in a stage accident. Can we trust Harry Reid?” Given my own political leanings (and what my friends and colleagues know of them), it’ll be interesting to see who the next horse thief will be, and to whom he’ll be said to be related. Now taking bets on the next rumor!