Man Without Qualities

Monday, August 09, 2004

A Little Bit Of Cambodia In My Life

Is it Hugh Hewitt correct in writing that the Cambodia whopper is the weakest spot in Kerry's Vietnam narrative? Is he likely correct in writing:

[A]t some point a print editor or television producer with integrity has to surface who is willing to acknowledge that Kerry's lying about an illegal mission to Cambodia --on the floor of a Senate in order to advance a political agenda-- raises a huge question about all of his Vietnam narrative that depends solely on his testimony, and on his credibility generally. Boldly inventing episodes that didn't happen to pad your resume doesn't detract from Kerry's courage, or his rescue of one of his crewmates under fire, but Christmas-Eve-in-Cambodia is a window on Kerry's trustworthiness.
What about all the excitement John Kerry's "Christmas-Eve-In-Cambodia" story is generating in the blogosphere, including posts by Bill Quick, Instapundit, Ipse Dixit, LittleGreenFootballs, Roger L. Simon, and Speed of Thought, and a particularly excellent effort at JustOneMinute? Novak is also on the case - and says he has actually read the whole book.

The situation is developing rapidly and partial answers are already available. As far as the mainstream media is concerned, we don't know if any "integrity" is involved, but Nightline is getting active. Much of the work done by bloggers, especially Tom Maguire, is extraordinary.

But the growing excitement about young John Kerry's prevarications may begin to smell like a little bit of Monica Lewinski - and that would not be good. Not good at all.

Let's take some time out for a reality check. Yes, there is considerable evidence - and always has been - that John Kerry has exaggerated certain aspects of his military record but so have a great many very brave and noble combat veterans throughout history - and it has always been that way, in and after every war. To get a sense of how this is integrated into American culture, one might spend a few nights cozied up with some vintage movies from, say, the 1930's and 1950's, in which actors playing family members of veterans recount affectionately how the veteran's frequently retold war stories have him personally prevailing in the battle of, say, Chickamauga, Ypres or Guadalcanal. Or perhaps the reader has personal experience with such a cherished veteran - many people do. And it's not just ordinary servicemen who stretch the truth. General Douglas MacArthur, for example, was widely considered to have taken far too much credit for military successes in which he was involved - but that doesn't change the fact that MacArthur was a great general worthy of great respect:

Among Navy officers ... MacArthur was viewed as a pompous windbag and an incurable ham, always playing to the galleries. ... They felt certain that MacArthur's massive ego would never allow him to ... give the Navy proper credit for its vital contribution to that effort.

MacArthur also distorted reasons why he hadn't accomplished more than the considerable amount did accomplish:

"At times it had looked as though it was intended that I should be defeated ... My isolation, indeed, is complete. This area is not only the forgotten one but is the one of lost opportunities. Time and again, had I had the support, the opportunity was present for a decisive stroke. I do not know who is responsible but it is a story of national shame." ... The statistics refuted MacArthur's sweeping indictment.

I do not wish to equate the tiny military career of John Kerry with the huge accomplishments of Douglas MacArthur. But is it wrong for veterans and even the most senior officers in the service to exaggerate the obstacles they overcome or the extent or importance of their participation? Of course it's wrong. But not every such distortion or exaggeration is "a window on [the veteran's] trustworthiness." And it strikes me as much overblown to suggest that "Kerry's lying about an illegal mission to Cambodia --on the floor of a Senate in order to advance a political agenda-- raises a huge question about all of his Vietnam narrative that depends solely on his testimony, and on his credibility generally."

Does lying about one's military record by itself disqualify one from the Presidency? Teddy Roosevelt's presentation of his role at San Juan Hill was not limited to "just the facts" - and not without serious distortion and exaggeration of their, and his, significance:

Roosevelt promoted himself as a hero to his media contacts, who obligingly reported his boasts as truth in their newspaper dispatches. In reality, Roosevelt's charge was foolhardy; it wasn't even up San Juan Hill.

Is anybody out there going to argue that Teddy Roosevelt wasn't a good president?

Even if John Kerry told a whopper about Cambodia (which seems likely), it simply does not raise a huge issue for him politically unless this particular whopper is highly material - in fact, central - to today's ongoing presidential race. And it isn't any of that. In fact, John Kerry has not used this particular whopper for more than 12 years. He seems to have been trying to hide it - one consequence being the need for all that good blogger investigative work. Senator Kerry is not running on it now. And nobody is arguing that John Kerry obtained a medal or other accolade because of anything he did or didn't do in Cambodia.

Was it wrong of John Kerry to tell this whopper (assuming it is a whopper)? Of course it was wrong. But is telling such a whopper so serious a sin that we should distrust everything else John Kerry says about his war record to the point of demanding independent verification - as Mr. Hewitt suggests. I submit that arguing that position will simply lose the very swing voters one is trying to persuade. Worse, such an argument merely confirms the misplaced significance of those four months in Vietnam - at the expense of all of John Kerry's years in the Senate, which is where attention should be focused.

And it really doesn't add much weight to any wrong John Kerry may have committed if he told his Cambodia whopper on the Senate floor in order to advance a political agenda. How can one determine the days on which the Senate is probably going to be served a whopper from its floor in order to advance the political agenda of the whopper-server? Easy, just check the calendar for any day the Senate is going to be in session. If, say, someone like Ted Kennedy speaks, the odds rise to almost 100%. You can see and hear it happen from the visitors' gallery. It's always been that way.

Was it wrong for Bill Clinton to perjure himself in the Monica mess? Of course it was. But the Lewinski imbroglio demonstrated that most of the electorate is simply not easily sympathetic to an attempt to use what it sees as legal niceties (perjury, sanctity of the Senate floor) to elevate a mere lie to a sweeping assault on someone's fitness for the Presidency. This means that the essence of the charge against John Kerry must be found in the whopper itself - not in its appurtenances, such as having been said at one time or the other under oath or on in some sacred space. Worse for the Kerry critics, each time Kerry has used the Cambodia whopper was a long time ago. And it will likely be not much of an answer to argue that the old whopper is relevant because John Kerry has made his Vietnam service a central credential. That is generally true, and people who believe such things are silly - but as noted above John Kerry is not making his Cambodia whopper an issue in this campaign.

Other charges against John Kerry's Vietnam service are much more substantial than the Cambodia whopper. Pulling down a medal for shooting a fleeing man in the back - a charge made and unmade and remade by Mr. Elliot, for example - might be quite a different matter, if it can be proved. Senator Kerry has made an issue of that medal. In this sense Novak gets it right: "Unfit for Command" sends a devastating message, unless effectively refuted. Perhaps most disturbing are allegations that Kerry's combat decorations are unjustified. But even on this count, challenging events in combat after thirty years - with all the invitation to error and unsettling closure that invites - might very justifiably send shivers down the spines of many decorated veterans.

Unlike Mr. Novak, I have not yet read "Unfit for Command," so I will reserve judgment. But from what I have seen, the most valid use of its accusations may be to argue that nobody should be voting in America in 2004 very much on the basis of what happened to a junior officer in Southeast Asia in 1968. Yes, that result was slyly contemplated by Messrs. Morris and O'Reilly - and would very much please the Bush campaign. Sometimes partisan desires are right desires for the country, too.

But attempts to go beyond that use of "Unfit for Command" seem more likely to alienate swing voters than persuade them. John Kerry is a personally loathsome selfish man with bad judgment, a snob with a highly undistinguished Senate career and devoid of good ideas. There's plenty to run against here. His Cambodia whopper is yet another of his many embarrassments. But carrying on as if it were more than that is likely just to make one seem like a fugitive from the fever swamps. The voters showed what they think of such fugitives in the Monica mess.


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