The Sinking Ship And a Swift Boat

By Leonard Fein

Published August 27, 2004, issue of August 27, 2004.

Can farce be brilliant? If so, the Bush campaign’s current production merits rave reviews.

Act One: A United States senator who, during his 20 years in office, has inspired just about no one manages to win the Democratic party’s nomination for the presidency. His lackluster record is a burden relieved by only two chunks of biography: First, he was a genuine war hero during Vietnam; second, his protest against the Vietnam War after his discharge was powerful and eloquent.

But only the first of these can be brought front and center during the campaign; the second might backfire. And so John Kerry’s proposed reform of the health system, his proposals for management of the deficit and for national service — for the entire domestic agenda — are almost tacked on afterthoughts to his campaign’s emphasis on his heroism as a young man.

(I omit from this recounting his “plans” for ending the Iraq fiasco; they are more vague wishes than real plans. But surely he should not have said, as he has, that if the vote on the war were being held today, knowing what we know now, he’d still vote to authorize it; the president, he explained,“needs to have that power.” Has he not learned what Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush have taught us all, that if a president has that power he will quite likely use it, likely abuse it?)

In the case at hand, the appeal to heroism has as its unstated — well, rarely stated — corollary the iffy-ness of the military service record of the commander in chief.

Act Two: Sensing the threat, the Bush people are troubled. They cannot let the heroism thing take root, even though it is out there with eye witnesses, documentation and so forth. Improbably, they decide on a direct assault. Other veterans of Vietnam-era swift boats assert that Kerry fabricated the entire story, that he authored the documents that attested to it, that the corroborating witnesses are all partisan shills.

At first, the assault seems too outrageous to have any effect. It is largely ignored or dismissed by mainstream media. It is, after all, only the charge of a 527 group, a group that according to the law cannot coordinate its activities with the Bush campaign. There are goons and kooks all over the place, and the candidate is surely not guilty by virtue of his nonassociation with them.

But the right-wing talk shows and Web bloggers will not let go of it, and the 527 people are themselves relentless. And even though there are inconsistencies to their stories, and despite their “web of connections to the Bush family, high-profile Texas political figures and President Bush’s chief political aide, Karl Rove,” as reported in The New York Times, they are not hooted off the stage.

Act Three: The Kerry people cry “Foul!” and demand that the president denounce the calumny. The president’s people respond that the president has called for an end to all 527 ads, including the enormously successful ad campaign of MoveOn.org, a 527 that at critical points in the course of the campaign has spent money that Kerry did not yet have and said things that Kerry himself could not or would not say.

Act Four: The swift boat hassle was originally designed to be the dog that did not bark — that is, the device that would render the entire question of military service, both Bush’s and Kerry’s, a nonsubject during the course of the upcoming and quite likely crucial debates. Instead and improbably, the argument over Kerry’s war record is developing real legs.

The recent support Kerry garnered among veterans has begun to erode; substantive differences between the candidates are eclipsed. Most people have neither ready access to nor patience for the detailed investigative reporting that already has shown Kerry’s accusers to be “interested parties,” hardly disinterested witnesses to what actually happened 35 years ago.

Nor will people follow the rotten trail to the latest ad, in which Kerry’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 is ripped entirely out of context. In the ad, Kerry says, “they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads,” “randomly shot at civilians,” and “razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan.” Even if these had been Kerry’s own words (which they were not — he was reporting what others had said at a Vietnam veterans conference in Detroit), have we forgotten entirely that such atrocities were in fact documented?

All these decades later, the Vietnam vets who back then experienced so chilly a welcome home, so frigid a national shoulder, are getting their belated revenge. The intended effect? The Vietnam War was nobly fought — and, better an absentee member of the Texas National Guard than a turncoat with ill-gotten medals.

Epilogue: See the new movie, “Uncovered: The War On Iraq.” It connects the ugly dots that led us into the current debacle of a war in ways that are fresh and deeply disturbing. Those who think that the entire problem of our war on Iraq can be laid at the feet of the intelligence community, that the upper echelons of the political establishment were simply misled, will be chastened by what they learn.

We did not stumble into this war; we chose it, and some of us even chased it. Congress is culpable, and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rice and Tenet and Powell — yes, even Powell — and Wolfowitz are culpable, and above all, George W. Bush is culpable. And consider: Will young men and women who know and say these things today find, 35 years from now when they seek high office, that there is a political price to be paid for speaking the truth?

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).



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