Monday, August 23, 2004


The dog that didn't bark

I've had no desire to get into the Swift Boat slime machine charges and countercharges. Reporters and bloggers are hanging on every word—dissecting, investigating. So if you're intensely interested in it, I'm afraid you will have to follow it somewhere else.

This is a campaign tactic—sliming—that I and plenty of others have already written about. It isn't news, but more important, it isn't relevant to anything this country is facing. And this country is facing a lot—a new Vietnam, fundamentalist Islam, poverty, the destruction of the middle class, loss of civil liberties, loss of health care, a looming energy crisis—just to mention a few of the real, very real issues that this campaign might be about if the media gave a shit.

That said, the Kerry forces have made and are making mistakes. The first was to try to ignore the story when the first ad appeared. The Kerry campaign had sworn on their grandma's teat that they would never allow a Republican attack to go unanswered. But Democrats that they are, they thought that maybe just this once they could ignore it and it would go away. The high ground they thought they were taking looks a lot like a sink hole from here. As Jim Lehrer noted this past Friday,

An Annenberg survey out today shows that half the country already knows about these ads and they only ran in three states in a very minor way because everybody... the talk show people and everybody picked them up.

Now that they've belatedly decided to counter the attack, they've been seized by a "can't see the forest for the trees" mentality, which tactically may be disastrous. As the Bush surrogates make charges, the campaign dutifully answers the specifics of the charges, trotting out Kerry defenders on the talk shows and penning op-ed articles for the press. This only serves to keep the issue alive.

Tom Oliphant, columnist for the Boston Globe, appeared with John O'Neill, the Swift Veterans attack dog, on the PBS News Hour last Thursday. It was passing strange. What can you make of this?

John O'Neill: This was an episode in which Kerry claimed that five swift boats on March the 13th had a mine go off; they fled and John Kerry came back and rescued a man named Rassmann.

What actually happened on that day is that a mine went off, a boat, PCF-3, was disabled. All boats went to the aid of PCF-3 with one exception, John Kerry. He left the area and returned later and did, in fact, pick up Rassmann.

A caveat: I'm not a combat veteran of anything but the inner city, so maybe my visualization of this episode is all wet. But for the life of me I can't understand how it was that 5 boats, with the exception of Kerry's, "went to the aid" of the damaged boat (under no weapons fire, they claim) and left poor Rassmann in the water, leaving it for Kerry to come back and pick him up. Does that make sense to you?

But Oliphant, instead of getting into the minutiae, said,

I think this is an allegation that has a credibility problem that I believe I can address on journalistic as opposed to political grounds.

One of the things we look for, I mean, there is nothing new about a dispute over a war record with many of us in journalism that have been through many, many times. We look to see if somebody said something at the time.

That's a problem for Mr. O'Neill's group because no one appears to have made an issue of this when it was actually happening. [emphasis added]

Oliphant a few minutes later raised this point, which for me was a first hearing:

.... [A]t the time that Kerry first became a public figure, the very first thing that happened in the Nixon White House, aside from the support given to Mr. O'Neill and his cause, was to look back to see if there was anything in Vietnam they could use against John Kerry.

And Chuck Coalson's office and other people involved politically with President Nixon did that back then.
... [Chatter]
The navy secretary, the second navy secretary for the Nixon administration was ... John Warner. Today he is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he has a view of this that is quite similar to Sen. McCain's. And it was his department that reviewed the documentary and other evidence at the time. Nixon was desperate to get this guy.

Nixon is the dog that didn't bark. If there had been anything, anything of an evidentiary nature to harm Kerry, Nixon would have used it. Today's generation has little inkling of what a slimeball Richard Nixon was. But the Vietnam veterans, whether they supported or opposed Nixon, know full well that he would not have ignored this opportunity if it had existed. And it's the veterans who seem to be most affected by this controversy.

Oliphant wrote a column yesterday reiterating some of the points he made on the NewsHour.

What gets short-shrift these days is that Nixon also wanted to bend heaven and earth to find some aspect of Kerry's Vietnam service -- anything -- that could be used to discredit him. In fact, much of what we call today the politics of personal destruction was pioneered by Nixon's White House. He had a firm control of a fearful government in those pre-Watergate days -- and he used it.

My suggestion to the Kerry campaign: Kerry needs to say something like this.

My fellow Americans. I have been under sniper fire before, not once but repeatedly--both in Vietnam and in politics. While I felt it was my duty to serve my country, I stood up against the decisions the politicians were making to send our boys—my brothers—into harm's way in Vietnam.

President Richard Nixon was in office at the time. You remember Richard Nixon, don't you? He was the first President in American history to make the decision to resign rather than face impeachment. And he was as ready to smear my record then as George Bush is today. In fact, this John O'Neill, who's been making all these claims against me, was used by Nixon back then to do the very same thing.

The fact that I'm standing before you today is evidence—evidence that I'm a fighter and a survivor, and that the greatest slime machine in American history was not able to bring me down. If the charges they are making were true, I would never have become a U.S. Senator, and I would not be here running for President today.

It's not wrong for the American people to want to know what my record is. It is wrong when people try to distort that record. And I'll put my record up against George Bush's any day.

Now let's turn our attention back to the problems that George Bush is ignoring and hopes that you will ignore....

Let's hear it, John.

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