After Politico reported that Chris Coons, the Democratic candidate for Senate running against Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, had written an opinion piece for his college newspaper titled "Chris Coons: The Making of a Bearded Marxist," right-wing media figures jumped on the story to attack Coons. What they failed to mention was that the title was a play off what Coons called a joke that his friends* made; the right wing gleefully and ludicrously declared that Coons had called himself a Marxist.
The article behind the controversy is an opinion piece that Coons wrote over 20 years ago, which Politico first covered in May this year. In the May 23, 1985, article for his college newspaper, The Amherst Student, Coons wrote (PDF):
I spent the spring of my junior year in Africa on the St. Lawrence Kenya Study Program. Going to Kenya was one of the few real decisions I have made; my friends, family, and professors all advised against it, but I went anyway. My friends now joke that something about Kenya, maybe the strange diet, or the tropical sun, changed my personality; Africa to them seems a catalytic converter that takes in clean-shaven, clear-thinking Americans and sends back bearded Marxists.
The point that others ignore is that I was ready to change. Experiences at Amherst my first two years made me skeptical and uncomfortable with Republicanism, enough so that I wanted to see the Third World for myself to get some perspective on my beliefs.
When I returned last summer, I traveled all over the East Coast and saw in many ways a different America. Upon arriving at Amherst this fall, I felt like a freshman at an unfamiliar school all over again. Many of the questions raised by my experiences of the last year remain unanswered. I have spent my senior year reexamining my ideas and have returned to loving America, but in the way of one who has realized its faults and failures and still believes in its promise. The greatest value of Amherst for me, then, has been the role it played in allowing me to question, and to think. I had to see the slums of Nairobi before the slums of New York meant anything at all, but without the experiences of Amherst, I never would have seen either.
Coons never called himself a Marxist, and Politico never claimed that he did; the title is a play off of what Coons said was a joke by his friends.*
In a statement to Politico, the Coons campaign reinforced this fact:
Dave Hoffman, a Coons campaign spokesman, said the title of the article was designed as a humorous take-off on a joke Coons's college friends had made about how his time outside the country had affected his outlook.
Hoffman said the trip to Kenya helped lead to Coons's decision to become a Democrat.
"Chris wrote an article about a transformative experience during his semester in Kenya more than twenty-five years ago," said Hoffman in a statement to POLITICO. "After witnessing crushing poverty and the consequences of the Reagan Administration's 'constructive engagement' with the South African apartheid regime, he rethought his political views, returned to the America he loved and proudly registered as a Democrat."
Yet right-wing media figures, including several Fox News personalities, decided that Coons had described himself as a Marxist. On his September 16 show, Sean Hannity said "some unpopular Democrats are coming out of the woodwork to support Delaware's 'bearded Marxist' " -- without mentioning that the title was based on what Coons called a joke that his friends made. On his radio show that day, Glenn Beck called Coons a "Marxist" and a "staunch anti-capitalist." On The O'Reilly Factor on September 17, both Beck and Bill O'Reilly claimed that Coons is "a Marxist" and "admitted it." On Fox & Friends on September 18, Eric Bolling said O'Donnell's "opponent now is a self-described Marxist."
Coons never identified himself as a Marxist in the college article, and he does not describe himself as a Marxist now; to say that he "admitted" to being a Marxist or is a "self-described Marxist" is simply false.
Glenn Beck's website The Blaze brought a different, sleazy angle to the attack, writing on September 16:
Coons isn't the only politician to have a life-changing experience in Kenya. As Dinesh D'Souza points out in a recent Forbes article, Barack Obama returned from there a changed man too.
*This post has been edited