Man Without Qualities

Thursday, August 05, 2004

O Those Veterans II

Dick Morris and Bill O'Reilly were just condemning the now-(in)famous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth anti-Kerry ad. Mr. O'Reilly introduced the segment saying that they were to discuss the "ethics" of the ad and emphatically repeated that John Kerry volunteered for service in Vietnam - which is true only in a very attenuated sense (he had been told that he was otherwise would be drafted into the then-more-dangerous army and, as Chris Suellentrop pointed out, Kerry volunteered for swift boat duty before it became dangerous). This excellent post by Tom Maguire provides lots more on this point and related matters. See especially Tom's link to Spinsanity's deconstruction of the Senator's exaggerated "volunteerings."

Mr. Morris wasn't interested in discussing any notion of "ethics." Instead, Mr. Morris focused on what he saw as the "stupidity" of the ad. The "stupidity" he was concerned about seemed to flow from two main concerns. Mr. Morris' first concern seemed to arise from his imagining himself back working in the Clinton White House and considering what his thought processes would have been in considering "planting" such an ad under the guise of an "independent group." Mr. Morris' also considered Senator Kerry's valorous military record to be sufficiently documented that the ad (and, it would seem, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth book and anything else they might produce) can't possibly be effective in obtaining for Mr. Bush even "a single vote." A subsidiary concern, which also seemed to concern Mr. O'Reilly, was that all but one of the men actually serving on John Kerry's boat do support him - and they have more credibility than the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Finally, Mr. Morris was concerned that Senator Kerry's "unassailable" military service record is his strongest campaign suit and is simply better than that of Mr. Bush - and that the ad draws attention to all that.

I completely agree that someone working in the White House would be stupid to create - or coordinate in the creation of - such an ad. Indeed, under current campaign finance law, such actions would likely be illegal, even criminal. Mr. Morris even suggested (and then immediately retracted) that the White House probably does have its "fingerprints" on the ad because the $500,000 financing the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has raised simply doesn't "arise spontaneously." But the intensity of Mr. Morris' concern on this point is odd: he admitted that he had no evidence that the Bush White House is or was ever involved with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. So why is his concern more than a theoretical one? Why the intensity? Does it arise from a presumption he makes based on his own way of doing business? His suggestion that the White House should have contacted the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and demanded that they pull the ad before it ran is odd, since such an action would definitely suggest that the White House knew about the ad before it was released and that the White House could control, or at least coordinated actions with, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Assuming the White House had done what Mr. Morris suggests, what additional evidence would be needed to prove Republican violation of federal campaign law? - a confession in the President's own hand?

Mr. Morris placed particular emphasis on the likelihood that the contributors to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth may mostly turn out to be big supporters of George Bush. He suggested that "someone" would investigate and show this to be true. No such investigation is necessary: Of course the contributors to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are wealthy George Bush supporters! Who else could they be? John Kerry supporters? The DNC? Members of Sister Theresa's religious order who took up a collection in the Calcutta slums? What the heck is Mr. Morris thinking?

It is possible the argument that the White House is "behind" the ad because it was funded by Bush backers might gain some unjustified political traction if the Democrats and the media hammer on the point. But if this point is hammered it raises the whole issue of Democratic-leaning "independent organizations," including those funded by George Soros. And mere overlap of contributors by itself just doesn't reasonably demonstrate or even suggest that the White House is "behind" this ad. Many politically active people - and one need not descend to the level of George Soros - contribute to all sorts of organizations that serve what the contributor considers to be related goals. That alone doesn't even suggest a "conspiracy" or "joint control" or "coordination." If other evidence of coordination exists - as Mr. Morris stated (also without support) exists among Hillary Clinton, Harold Ickes and George Soros - then perhaps an inference can be drawn reasonably. But from mere overlap of contributors? That's not even a close call for a reasonable person. But perhaps Mr. Morris is more concerned about inferences naive people might draw? Relatedly, unsubstantiated accusations made today by Kerry-Edwards that Karl Rove is involved in the ad are more likely to do harm to the Democrats than any real good - especially given the Democrat's recent record of characterizing many events adverse to their interests as "dirty tricks" (as with the recent ridiculous NASA "bunny suit" episode).

As for the effectiveness of this ad, I don't think it's intended to be effective with the general voting public. It is intended to reach the minority of the electorate who care a lot about Senator Kerry's military valor over a few months of service thirty years ago. It isn't obvious that the Senator Kerry's crew have overwhelming credibility with that entire target group. The doctor who treated Senator Kerry for a wound that led to one of his purple hearts would also seem to have some credibility with respect to those wounds. In sum, I don't think the ad is obviously "ineffective" - especially since it is very well produced and constructed. It would be interesting to see focus group and poll results on this point. If the White House is involved then surely the impact of the ad would have been tested in some professional form. Doesn't that make Mr. Morris' arguments that the ad is "ineffective" and that "the White House is likely involved" seem inconsistent on a practical level?

Then there is Mr. Morris' concern that the ad just draws attention to the superiority of Senator Kerry's service records over that of Mr. Bush. This concern seems overblown since only Senator Kerry has made his military service record a centerpiece of his campaign and a supposedly key credential. Senator Kerry's military service record in the form he and his supports have placed it is simply not generally unassailable.

But perhaps the oddest aspect of the O'Reilly/Morris segment was their joint suggestion, after jointly deploring the ad, that the real message from this entire event is that voters should just stop giving significant weight to what happened in Vietnam thirty years ago. No doubt the White House would be extremely pleased with that outcome. Nobody else was there to point that out.

And exactly why wasn't anyone else there? You know, someone who might have disagreed with the unison chant from this curious duo?


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