Once upon a time, political partisans and gangsters used to adhere to a certain code of conduct: all’s fair when it came to your rivals, but their families were off limits.
But that was a long time ago. There are no men of honor left in criminal societies, and it is increasingly harder to find them among those who truck in today’s hyperpartisan politics.
Consider the Iranian nuclear deal. Republicans are uniformly against it. Some believe it is an unnecessary capitulation to an untrustworthy regime that still traffics in terrorism.
That’s certainly a legitimate argument to make. But some opponents of the deal who harbor a visceral dislike of anything associated with President Obama have gone, as Sean O’Casey might have put it, beyond the beyonds.
A constellation of right-wing websites has propagated a conspiracy theory ostensibly aimed at Secretary of State John Kerry, who was the United States’ chief negotiator with Iran. But the real victims of this smear are Kerry’s daughter and her husband, Brian Nahed, who are physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The story went like this: John Kerry is in the tank with Iran because his son-in-law is Iranian. Not only that, but the best man at the 2009 Boston wedding of Nahed and Vanessa Kerry was the son of Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister who negotiated the deal with Kerry. Kerry sold out his country for his in-laws.
It was a great story — except none of it is true.
Brian Nahed was born in New York to Iranian parents who left Iran in 1975. He’s never set foot in Iran. He doesn’t know Zarif’s son. He doesn’t know Zarif.
Nahed is a brilliant neurosurgeon, but he doesn’t follow politics. He married into a very prominent American political family, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to use him as a crash dummy in a hamfisted attempt to smear his father-in-law.
Vanessa Kerry told me she and her husband initially ignored the conspiracy theory. But that laissez-faire approach didn’t work. Getting its biggest bump on the popular website of Allen West, a one-term congressman and prominent conservative pundit, the lie metastasized on websites and conservative talk shows. Zarif’s son morphed into Nahed’s college roommate. Except he wasn’t.
“Like most people,” Nahed told me, “we thought it was so outlandish that no one would believe it.”
The couple became alarmed when they read some of the menacing comments attached to the unsubstantiated claims. If those sinister comments could be dismissed as the idle threats of anonymous trolls, the theoretical became real when Nahed’s patients and prospective patients started asking him about the claims.
Not surprisingly, many people plug their doctor’s name into a search engine. When they plugged in Nahed’s name, his impressive résumé at MGH came up. But so did a bunch of websites peddling the phony story, including The Daily Caller and The Blaze, which have more mainstream conservative followers.
Vanessa Kerry is used to the drill. She has seen her father vilified by political opponents his entire public life. As hard as it was for her to shrug it off, it was harder for her husband.
“My husband is a private citizen,” she said. “His being asked about this is a weekly if not daily occurrence. It became painful to watch this affect my husband.”
Rather than ignore it, Vanessa Kerry and her husband began contacting websites directly. They pointed out the lies, and most sites, including West’s, took the postings down.
But others have not. Vanessa Kerry and Brian Nahed said the website of Kenneth Timmerman, a conservative author and activist, flatly refused. Timmerman’s account, headlined “John Kerry is Compromised on Iran,” is still displayed prominently on his homepage.
A pair of physicians who take care of sick people in Boston don’t deserve to be collateral damage in a national political debate, no matter how important that debate.
People are entitled to their opinions, but as Vanessa Kerry put it: “Opinions are one thing. Lies are another.”