I can appreciate why people are turned off by dirty politics, by which I mean the unsubstantiated mudslinging against candidates designed to mislead and smear rather than inform. But I lament the level of cynicism to which we’ve descended that makes us turn a deaf ear to negativity that may well be true and relevant.
I’m referring primarily to the public uproar surrounding the new book Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John F. Kerry, in which a group of swift boat officers who served alongside John Kerry in Vietnam tell a devastating story that, if true, annihilates Kerry’s image as a war hero.
Part of me — the cautious and pragmatic part — wishes that this would just go away. After all, this could easily backfire and make Republicans look desperate and petty.
One thing we learned from the Clinton era is that ironically, public officials can benefit — to a point — from the outrageousness and sheer volume of their library of scandals. The more outrageous the rumors that circulated about Clinton were, the less believable even the routine scandals became — though I personally believe that even some of the outrageous ones were probably true.
After a while, the public completely numbed to the scandals. Clinton could have been captured on videotape impersonating a police officer and beating Rodney King with a nightstick and James Carville and Hillary Clinton would have deflected it as “old news” fabricated by the vast right-wing conspiracy.
Some of the adverse reactions to these claims against Kerry arises from our culture’s justifiable elevation of war heroes and the sacrosanct nature of one’s honorable military — especially wartime — service. You just can’t go there.
But think about it. What if the allegations are true? What if Kerry truly did self-inflict, lie about, or embellish his wounds and other aspects of his reputed heroism? What if he did videotape himself reenacting combat scenes, all with an eye toward his future in politics? What if he did actually participate in atrocities as he said he did? (HeÃ?Â¢Ã¢â??Â¬Ã¢â??Â¢s gotten a complete pass on this.) Would these things matter? Should they matter?
Sure, I would prefer that all elections be decided on the issues, after a thorough debate and adequate public deliberation. But have we become so jaded that a presidential candidate’s character is no longer an issue — even when it may directly bear on how he would perform in office?
Indignant Democrats can pretend otherwise, but they have been making President Bush’s character an unceasing issue for the past four years. Indeed, his allegedly poor character is the main hook the Democrats are hanging their hats on in this campaign.
Despite the hype, the Democrats really don’t have much else to go on this year, which is why they don’t dare dissociate themselves from Michael Moore, the principal purveyor of the abominable “Bush lied” lie. So the Democrats don’t have much standing to complain about “negative” campaigning.
Nor does Senator Kerry — at least with respect to this issue. He is the one who “opened the door” by making his Vietnam service the centerpiece of his campaign. If his honorable service is relevant, so is the possibility of his dishonorable service.
This shouldn’t be about “fairness” anyway, but about informing the public. If the stunning allegations in Unfit for Command are true, they paint a picture of a man who simply cannot be trusted to be president, much less a wartime president. So what we ought to be focused on is whether they are true.
Concerning the veracity of the charges, consider that the “Swiftees” are not GOP mouthpieces — some are Democrats. They approached Regnery Publishing with their book proposal, not the other way around. Their account is based on their firsthand knowledge — not hearsay — and would be admissible in any court proceeding involving these issues.
The Swiftees didn’t wait until the last minute in the campaign to raise these charges, as did those who attempted to impugn George W. Bush in 2000 the very weekend before election day. They have allowed Kerry ample time to attempt to rebut their indictment. Just release your medical records, Senator Kerry.
The Swiftees’ brief against John Kerry, if true, is the opposite of dirty campaigning, because we cannot overstate its relevance to his fitness for commander in chief.
Conversely, if you want to witness a seminar in dirty campaigning, just watch as the DNC goes into action trying to suppress the story and smear those who repeat it — anything but an airing of the merits of the charges. It’s going to be ugly.