By MSNBC contributor
updated 3/16/2004 10:30:01 AM ET 2004-03-16T15:30:01

Oliver Stone, call your answering service. Thanks to our political leaders, conspiracy theories are back in fashion.

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When former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide said from exile in the Central African Republic that U.S. forces eager for him to resign kidnapped him, the White House, Pentagon and State Department laughed out loud. Diplomatically, of course. Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan responded, "It's nonsense, and conspiracy theories do nothing to help the Haitian people move forward to a better, more free, more prosperous future."

Indeed, conspiracy theories do nothing to help the Haitian people. But they do wonders to spice up political rhetoric here at home.

The United States forced out Aristide? What a delicious theory — spread by, among others, our elected members of Congress.

Representatives Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) held news conferences to recount phone calls they had received from Aristide. Waters said in a statement: "He told me, 'The world must know it was a coup. I was kidnapped. I was forced out. That's what happened. I did not resign.' "

For some unknown, possibly nefarious, reason — perhaps it’s a Zionist plot, perhaps it’s all that fluoride in the water, or maybe it’s because the government is still covering up all those aliens landing in New Mexico — conspiracies are the "in" thing in politics these days. At all levels. During the Democratic presidential primary, Howard Dean went on National Public Radio and talked about the allegation that the Saudi government warned President Bush about the Sept. 11 attacks. Here’s Dean: "The most interesting theory I've heard so far — which is nothing more than a theory, it can't be proved — is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis"

Theories that can’t be proved? You mean, ta-dah, a conspiracy theory?

Here’s a fun one. You make the call. Was John Kerry subscribing to a conspiracy theory when he responded this way to the negative Bush campaign ads: "There is a Republican attack squad that specializes in trying to destroy people and be negative."

The ruling? Probably not a conspiracy theory. After all, there is a Republican attack squad. It’s called, well, the Republican Party. No secret there. That’s what they do for a living.

Kerry’s comments were a far cry from the stronger language Hillary Clinton used in an interview with Matt Lauer in 1998: "I do believe that this is a battle. I mean, look at the very people who are involved in this. They have popped up in other settings. This is — the great story here, for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it, is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."

Not once, but twice
Now that was an honest-to-goodness conspiracy theory. Mrs. Clinton said so. Twice.

And she’s never lived it down. Vice President Cheney told the Gridiron Dinner this year: "I always feel a genuine bond whenever I see Senator Clinton. She's the only person who's the center of more conspiracy theories than I am."

That line shows that conspiracy theories, at their rhetorical best, can also make for solid punch lines. Just ask former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who reportedly said to Roll Call executive editor Mort Kondracke, "Do you suppose that the Bush administration has Osama bin Laden hidden away somewhere and will bring him out before the election?" Albright said she was joking. Good one, Madame Secretary.

Far less humorous was former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. She lost her re-election primary in 2002 in part because of her conspiracy theory about Sept. 11. Ex-Rep. McKinney suggested the Bush administration may have known in advance about the attacks, but did nothing — for financial gain. She wondered in a 2002 interview on public radio: "What did this administration know and when did it know it about the events of Sept. 11? Who else knew, and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered? What do they have to hide?"

Good questions to ask — if you’ve got a conspiracy theory in mind.

Getting back to Kerry
Let’s return to John Kerry. Here’s another interesting thing he said. It doesn’t really qualify as a conspiracy theory. It’s more of a reverse theory about others’ conspiracies — of hope. Or something like that. On March 8, Reuters quoted the Democratic presidential nominee saying, "I've met foreign leaders who can't go out and say this publicly, but boy they look at you and say, 'You've got to win this, you've got to beat this guy, we need a new policy,' things like that." Short of conducting a poll of foreign leaders like Chancellor Schroeder or Presidents Chirac and Putin, there’s no way to prove what Kerry claims. So we’ll have to take the senator’s word for it. That disqualifies his remark as a conspiracy theory. Instead, call it, say, a charming quirk.

We like it when politicians come right out and say they’re spreading a conspiracy theory. That’s why we love Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), Kerry’s Florida campaign chairman. Here’s what Rep. Meek said about Haiti in the March 1 Miami Herald: “The conspiracy theory is alive and well as it relates to their hand in this. This is going to be front and center in the campaign, just like Iraq will be.”

Of course, that’s just a theory.

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