Readers can decide for themselves whether the Democrats are engaging in "gutter politics" by pushing hard on President Bush's Vietnam-era service, or lack thereof, in the National Guard. The story about Bush peeves me a little; I enlisted in the Army and did my time in Vietnam, not carrying an M-16 but not safely in Saigon either. Almost four years of my life were devoted to service, and Bush apparently couldn't be bothered to show up for some of the weekends he promised to serve.
But what really gets my goat is political operatives in Bush's White House making the "gutter" charge. Whether or not you think the accusation is true, it takes a lot of gall for this group to make it.
Take what they did to Max Cleland, for example. Cleland is a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran, former head of the Department of Veterans Affairs and for one term a U.S. senator from Georgia. Then the Republicans decided to do a number on him. In a hard-fought campaign for re-election, Cleland got everything the Republicans could throw at him, including the kitchen sink. His challenger was Saxby Chambliss, picked and managed by the White House's Karl Rove and Georgia GOP Chairman Ralph Reed. The absolute low point was a television ad which showed Cleland's photo together with those of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, equating the three. Cleland, the ad said, had shown his true colors by voting against homeland security. He was, the ad implied, unpatriotic.
Of course he wasn't. Through the long process of creating the Department of Homeland Security, Cleland had supported an alternative plan pushed by Democrats. It differed with the Republican version chiefly in the way it treated federal employees who are members of unions. The new department, after all, was a Democratic initiative, for months strongly opposed by Bush. But the false claim that the moderate Cleland had been soft on terrorism was enough to get him removed by Georgia voters -- in an election animated by the issue of whether the Confederate flag should have been removed from the Georgia statehouse.
Now fast forward to 2004. Cleland has been hitting the campaign trail hard for Sen. John Kerry. Whereas Kerry has been circumspect about Bush's military service, Cleland hasn't. He has repeatedly challenged Bush to prove he met his Guard obligations.
Whereupon the Republicans unleashed their blond guided missile, Ann Coulter. Here's what she had to say this week: "Cleland lost three limbs in an accident during a routine noncombat mission where he was about to drink beer with friends. He saw a grenade on the ground and picked it up. He could have done that at Fort Dix." Coulter's version is akin to saying that John F. Kennedy was injured in World War II while taking a boat ride.
Here's what really happened: In March 1968, the Tet offensive staged by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong was winding down -- except at Khe Sanh, a Marine outpost famous for the siege it endured. An Army-Marine team was put together to relieve the Khe Sanh garrison and Cleland, an Army captain, volunteered. The combat his unit saw was heavy. At one point Cleland, the battalion signals officer, was told to set up a radio site on a hill near Khe Sanh. As he was helicoptered in with a couple of young soldiers (presumably because it was too dangerous to walk or drive), he told the pilot he was going to stay awhile because he knew some of the guys on the hill. Maybe have a beer with them, he said. As the soldiers left the helicopter, Cleland noticed a grenade on the ground. He thought he'd dropped it and leaned down to pick it up. It exploded, shredding one arm and both legs. It took a heroic effort by medics and doctors to keep him alive.
It is sick that Coulter can take that story and make it sound as if Cleland was safely ensconced at some rear area, ambling toward the officer's club for a few brews. She also fails to mention that Cleland won a Silver Star a week before he lost his limbs -- he was honored for braving enemy fire to tend wounded troops.
There's more: The new Republican story about Kerry himself is that his Vietnam experience is sort of exaggerated. Heck, he was only there two months, the Republican shills for this line say. Well, actually, he was there for closer to four months. And the reason he was rotated home? Because he'd been wounded three times -- not to mention winning Bronze and Silver stars along with three Purple Hearts.
Finally, there's the granddaddy of them all: Bush's gutter job on Sen. John McCain in the South Carolina primary of 2000. Bush lost to McCain in New Hampshire and wasn't going to allow it to happen again. So the Bush team resorted to what are called "push polls." They're designed to plant seeds of doubt about candidates. In South Carolina, callers asked those they were polling questions like: Would you be more or less likely to vote for McCain if you knew he'd fathered a black child out of wedlock? Some had him fathering the child with a prostitute. Others inquired whether voters knew that McCain's wife was a drug addict. And did they know he had abandoned his crippled first wife? It was nasty, nasty stuff, and it caused McCain to lose his composure in public, which didn't help his cause at all.
McCain's wife indeed became addicted to painkillers at one time, in much the same way that radio mouth Rush Limbaugh did. Moreover, McCain and his wife had adopted a little girl from an orphanage in Bangladesh, so the "black child" story seemed confirmed to some.
Democrats are capable of some of this, too. But for sheer effrontery, no one can hold a candle to Bush, his father and those who work for them, beginning with the late Lee Atwater and continuing through Rove. When it comes to truly gutter politics, they wrote the book -- or at least the modern version.
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