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"Dear Mr. Obama": The GOP's First Viral Video? [UPDATED]

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, September 12 2008

If you are one of the 41% of Americans who think the US invasion of Iraq was not a mistake, it looks like this video, showing a wounded veteran, Army Specialist Joe Cook, speaking in support of John McCain, could be your viral video of election 2008. As of this morning, "Dear Mr. Obama" has garnered more than 4.8 million views since being posted on August 27. Cook's heartfelt and straightforward attack on Obama for calling the Iraq war a mistake is clearly striking a chord, and my guess is this video will soon be hitting the cable channels and the mainstream media. Which raises the question: Who made it? Was this made by someone with ties to the McCain campaign? Or is it a real piece of voter-generated content?

"Dear Mr. Obama" was posted on YouTube by someone using the handle "weneedmccain." When I emailed that person asking for information about the making of the video, I got this reply:
"I wish I could currently spend some time with you, but this can't be about me right now. Too much going on.

I may be doing an interview with the soldier, who he is, what he believes, some Iraq stories and his parents views in the near future."
That doesn't tell us much, but it sure sounds like this person is, at minimum, a political activist if not a political professional. A second, more recent video made by weneedmccain, an anti-government, anti-tax polemic that calls Obama "socialistic" called "Dear Mr. Obama II: Economics 101," is quite professionally done, not only in its scripting but also in its use of video editing.

A follow-up email to weneedmccain got this reply:
"I am a filmmaker.

I met Joe when he first came back from Iraq to a huge town gathering, it was wonderful. This is how I met him and hooked up with him to shoot DEAR MR. OBAMA.

In fact, he thought the first take was just practice - he didn't know the camera was running. It just worked well."

When I emailed Robert Cook, the soldier's father, his answers to my questions were more forthcoming. He wrote:

We live in a small town North West of Chicago called Wauconda. Wauconda has a big parade in town when any of our Vets come home from the war. Our Village had a great parade when Joe came home and it made all of the local papers. I got a call from a man named Michael Brown who said he got my home number from Mayor Sal Soccomano. He wanted to know if Joe would be interested in talking about the person he supported for President and why. They then did a collaboration and they came up with the video that you have seen. Joe was not paid for this video and he was in the war along with his two brothers. Joe lost his left leg in Iraq. I found out about Joe's wounds when he called me from the recovery room. When Joe started the conversation with Dad I knew it was bad. I instantly heard the pain in his voice. The conversation went like this- Hello, Dad, How bad is it? Pretty bad. Tell me exactly what is wrong. I have lost my left leg. Are you going to live? Yes. When do you come home? We spent most of last summer in San Antonio with joe, helping him with his over 20 surgeries. Joe has regained his strength and as you can see by the video does not think he lost his leg for a mistake. I hope this answers your questions. Please let me know if you need anymore information.

A proud father of 3 veterans.

Robert Cook

A quick search for filmmakers named "Michael Brown" turns up too many potential positive hits to say for sure if this Michael Brown is a professional or an amateur. Stay tuned for more details--or feel free to help in the search! [UPDATE: There is a Michael Brown who runs a Christian film company called Testimony Pictures based in Wauconda. "Shedding God's Light in the World," is the company's motto. More details shortly.)

Phil de Vellis, who made the "Vote Different" Hillary 1984 video mashup that was the viral political breakout of 2007, says, "The video appears to be professionally produced. It's not a high-end production, but definitely made by a professional for an established political interest group. The script -- while personal and well-delivered by the veteran -- is full of Republican talking points and tropes that indicates that this isn't a grassroots video. There's nothing wrong with any of this. It's similar to the type of videos produced by Vote Vets on the left and Vets for Freedom on the right."

It appears that the video has been spread by grass-roots means, with big traffic engines like Rush Limbaugh and the Mudville Gazette only linking to it yesterday. Cook's father, Robert Cook, a Republican party committeeman in Wauconda County, IL, (and candidate for local office) has been emailing people urging them to watch it. As best as I can tell from paging backwards chronologically thru links to the video, word spread through various bulletin boards and local forums, especially ones run by and for veterans and gun owners. I even found a link to it on a site where people share reviews of radar detectors! (Who knew such a thing existed?!) About a week after the video first surfaced, people writing about it starting noticing that Cook had been featured in an local TV report in October 2007 when he returned home from Iraq, adding credibility and emotional resonance to his story. Frequently, a poster writes, "This commercial was done by a local kid. You have to watch the whole thing. When he finishes talking and walks away, you get a sense of how this could be the commercial of the campaign season."

Indeed, it could be the voter-generated commercial of the general election campaign--though, unlike the Hillary 1984 video, it's not clear that "Dear Mr. Obama" will change many minds or alter the campaign trajectory. Or it could be a brilliant piece of under-the-table campaign skullduggery. We don't know yet.