Sen. John Kerry has found a new rallying cry: “fear and smear.” Unfortunately for the Democratic presidential nominee, the taunt, like the old childhood rhyme, bounces off George W. Bush and sticks to the senator himself.
Despite the howling and yammering emanating from both camps, it seems obvious that Senator Kerry and his cadres have flung far more dung to date than their GOP foes. The “fear and smear” charge adds one more cow chip to the pile. This allegation insinuates that (1) George W. Bush has broken the law by working in cahoots with Swift War Veterans to make John Kerry look scary and (2) the Swifties are lying about Kerry’s record.
Let’s begin with the question of who smeared whom. President Bush has stated primly and repeatedly that he respects Sen. Kerry’s “honorable” service in Vietnam. It’s a pretty sterile and noncommittal way to pass on an “attaboy,” but it is what it is – an attempt to stay far, far away from a debate about Vietnam-era military service.
Sen. Kerry, in contrast, has invited such comparisons. This week, he dusted off the “Bring it on!” trope as a way of picking a fight, and he has taken the offensive from the start of this campaign. Consider a few highlights from the past year:
• In November, 2003, Kerry told Rolling Stone magazine, “(W)hen I voted for the war, I voted for what I thought was best for the country…. Did I expect George Bush to f--- it up as badly as he did?”
• February 8, 2004: “The issue here, as I have heard it raised, is – was he present and active on duty in Alabama at the times he was supposed to be…. Just because you get an honorable discharge does not in fact answer that question.
• April 26, 2004, on Good Morning America: “(The) President can’t even answer whether or not he showed up for duty in the National Guard…. This comes from a president who can’t even show or prove that he showed up from duty in the National Guard…. George Bush has yet to explain to America whether or not, and tell the truth, about whether he showed up for duty.”
This is just a sampling, but you get the idea. There is little comparison in the two candidates’ public statements. The president has adopted a passive pose; John Kerry has tried not only to bask in the glow of his Vietnam service, but to engage in pre-emptive warfare against anyone who might dare question that service or his subsequent record.
Move now to the Swift Boat Veterans. I have no idea which Swiftie claims are true, and have been trying to sort through the piles of available evidence. But several things seem indisputable.
First, the Kerry Team’s outrage seems wildly disproportionate to the charges offered. Senator Kerry’s allies on the left have spent between $60- and $100-million on ads and activities aimed at blasting the president. This figure doesn’t include Michael Moore’s cinematic primal scream, Fahrenheit 911. The Swift Boat Veterans For Truth so far have spent something like $200,000 on a couple of ads that have run a handful of times in a handful of states. Depending on how you calculate it, the Swifties have spent anywhere from .02 percent to .8 percent of what the Kerry cadres have shelled out. While Sen. Kerry whines about the relatively small expenditure by the Viet vets, he refuses to utter a peep of criticism against Moore, Moveon.org or other Bush-bashing outfits that either have distorted the facts or hurled wildly unsubstantiated accusations against the president.
Second, the senator is behaving more like a man caught in the act than one done wrong by ignorant, vicious foes. A man with nothing to hide would say, “I don’t know what’s with those guys. I’m clean. Here’s the record. Check it out.” And then he would release every available scrap of his war record.
Instead, Sen. Kerry’s campaign has gone to court repeatedly to silence the critics. His lawyers tried to suppress sales of the book. That failed. They urged the press to portray the president as a maniac practicing the politics of personal destruction, and to disavow the Swiftie ads specifically. The president upped the ante by blasting all independent-expenditure ads and asked the senator to join in the condemnation (Team Kerry so far has declined the offer). Now, FOKs (Friends of Kerry) have filed suit seeking to find official ties between the White House and the Swift Boat Vets.
(For the record, I think both guys are wrong. Independent-expenditure ads are constitutional, and the project of trying to suppress political speech is idiotic. The president shouldn’t be asking for moratoriums – and Sen. Kerry, whose political campaign now depends on third-party activism, ought to stop complaining when his side has aimed far more blows at the president and has far more ammo in reserve.)
Third, the Swifties seem to be right on at least two key charges. It now seems obvious that Sen. Kerry manufactured the claim, often repeated, that he spent Christmas, 1968 in Cambodia. Joshua Muravchik, citing Douglas Brinkley’s “Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War” has noted that Kerry, in his final journal entry from Vietnam, makes it clear that he never crossed over into Cambodia. Here’s the passage: “"The banks of the [Rach Giang Thanh River] whistled by as we churned out mile after mile at full speed. On my left were occasional open fields that allowed us a clear view into Cambodia. At some points, the border was only fifty yards away and it then would meander out to several hundred or even as much as a thousand yards away, always making one wonder what lay on the other side.”
It also appears that Sen. Kerry’s first Purple Heart came from a self-inflicted wound and not from enemy fire. Again, the relevant evidence comes from Brinkley’s book, citing a Jan. 9, 1969 journal entry from Sen. Kerry, in which he describes himself as a naïf who has yet to face hostile fire. The entry is dated a full week after the incident at which then Lt. jg Kerry received a Purple Heart, over the objections of at least one superior officer.
This controversy, to quote a friend, not only has developed legs. It has sprouted wings. Where it goes, I don’t know, but there are a lot of Democrats now wishing that the Swifties hadn’t taken up John Kerry’s challenge to “bring it on.”
Share your thoughts with Tony. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.