Man Without Qualities

Thursday, August 05, 2004

O Those Veterans

In the past John Kerry has often characterized a breathtakingly wide range of criticisms of his post-service activities as "questioning his military service record." Someone doesn't like the Senator's vote against the expensive-weapons-system-de-jour? He promptly replies: How dare that person question my military service record!

Now the actual assault on John Kerry's service record has begun.

I don't know how powerful this assault on Senator Kerry's version of his history will be or how much truth there is in it. The book that is apparently to serve as the transport vehicle for the assault's first wave certainly seems to be selling well at the moment. The excerpts from that book that have appeared on DRUDGE are corrosive of the image Senator Kerry has carefully constructed and maintained of his military career for decades. The television ad created by the group behind the book, by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, is to my eye absolutely devastating. The ad's opening invitation by John Edwards for any person who has any questions about Senator Kerry to just spend "three minutes" with the men who served with Senator Kerry in Vietnam seems particularly well conceived and effective. How does Kerry-Edwards credibly argue that the public shouldn't pay attention to the men speaking in the ad in the face of Senator Edward's invitation to the public t do just that?

The early signs do not seem promising for Kerry-Edwards. So far, the Kerry-Edwards responses have been to (1) argue that the men in Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are not credible because they didn't serve on Senator Kerry's own boat, (2) appeal to Senator John McCain, who has not surprisingly complied, and (3) attempt to distract attention by focusing on what Kerry-Edwards says are strong ties between the Bush campaign and the financial backers of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

But the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth website says that Senator Kerry himself used a photograph of many members of the group in one of his own ads that claimed all of the men pictured supported his candidacy - and that they are taking action to halt Senator Kerry's untrue claims. I haven't seen that Kerry ad, but if what Swift Boat Veterans for Truth claims is correct, how can Kerry-Edwards credibly argue they should shut up? Their the web site also contains a clever "morphing video" graphically showing that only one of the men in the photo actually supports the Senator, and a schematic showing that most of the rest think he is "unfit." This web site material seems to be even more damaging than the ad, could easily become another ad - and also seems to contain irrefutable arguments against any assertion that these men should not be heard or that they lack credibility.

John McCain doesn't like the ad and has responded in his usual high dudgeon. But Senators McCain and Kerry refer endlessly to their own military service and the men who served with them. Who is John McCain to tell these men to pipe down?

John McCain suggests that this assault on John Kerry is just like what Senator McCain says was the Bush campaign assault on Senator McCain during the 2000 Republican primaries, an assault to which Senator McCain seems to attribute his defeat in those primaries. If that's all correct it's bad news for Senator Kerry, since Senator McCain's approach suggests that such an assault is very effective. Fortunately for Kerry-Edwards, John McCain probably isn't correct about what brought down his own 2002 effort. The successes in his 2000 run depended on crossover voters, and attracted few actual Republican votes - which is not the best way to attempt to garner the Republican nomination for President. On a related note, the early and emphatic Kerry-Edwards appeal to John McCain in what may (or may not) be a fatal assault on the Kerry-Edwards ticket would seem to explain why Senator Kerry was so interested in putting John McCain on his ticket, until Senator McCain refused the suggestion.

The strategy of drawing attention to the funding source for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth may obtain some traction. But Kerry-Edwards is depending on scads of "independent" 527 committees. If the approach is to suggest that President Bush can control the funding or behavior of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, does that mean John Kerry is going to admit that he can direct (or does direct) MoveOn.Org or the activities of billionaire George Soros, who has given many millions of dollars to those committees? Kerry-Edwards has demanded that the President denounce the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad. Does that mean that Senator Kerry is obligated to "denounce" every nutty action of Mr. Soros, his 527 Committees and MoveOn.Org? In a curious way the McCain-Feingold legislation, by creating the 527 Committee phenomenon, seems to have undercut the argument that candidates have any obligation to denounce - or even address - those who offer "independent" support.

If this assault succeeds - and at the moment the best Senator Kerry seems likely to salvage is a particularly nasty "he said/he said" face off that can't do him any good - it raises the question: How could Kerry-Edwards have gone forward with a campaign and Convention based so much on exactly what this assault challenges? After all, this group served notice long ago that it would launch this assault if John Kerry received the nomination?

I think there are several possible reasons for Kerry-Edwards and the Democratic Party going forward as they did. First, there may be nothing to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth claims. Frankly, that seems unlikely. Then there is the weird effect of life in the United States Senate. Senators often feel that they live at the very top. They think they have survived the very most intense scrutiny possible. They think they are very much like John Kennedy, a Senator with many nasty skeletons kept nicely in the closet during a successful Presidential run.

And they are very wrong on all counts. Every election cycle seems to bring out at least one Senator whose attempt at the Presidency is shot down by something in his past that wasn't previously known and/or wasn't deemed disqualifying for public office, even the Senate - but is is discovered during his Presidential run and/or is deemed disqualifying for the Presidency. Think "Joe Biden" and "multiple plagiarisms and exxageration of academic record." Think "Gary Hart" and "Donna Rice." Senator Kerry may just be another example of that effect.

Of course, I have never understood why anyone much cares all about Senator Kerry's service record in connection with his ascent to high federal office, so it's a bit hard for me to internalize this new fracas over it's details. Some high officers - generals such as Grant and Eisenhower - have military service that demands of them huge organizational abilities, a capacity to grasp a big picture and a sense of what one demands of those one sends into combat. Those at least arguably constitute significant credentials for the Presidency - although President Grant's term in office calls for further evaluation of the importance of those credentials. But Senator Kerry's service record was just too small scale and short to matter much - and even as he tells it doesn't do much to support his claim to high legislative or executive office. Others obviously don't agree with me, many of them veterans, which I am not. So it will be interesting to see how Kerry-Edwards answers these charges and how the public - and those veterans - construe this imbroglio.

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