They were sitting in a place on Broadway having coffee at midmorning yesterday after hearing John Kerry's speech down the block at New York University. They were there as members of Vietnam veterans' groups and their energy came from the first excitement Kerry has given anybody in weeks. No, months.
He was strong and sensible about Iraq and then he said something that could carry him through the weeks to come and cause George Bush to stutter during the last weeks and debates:
"Yet today, President Bush tells us that he would do everything all over again, the same way."
It was the start of John Kerry's campaign for president. What he has done until now is spend months trying to find a way to lose it. Yesterday was his opener.
And it came on the day that Dan Rather of CBS had to admit that these memos about George Bush's service record were fraudulent. You go out to the Midwest and the South with this story and they tell you, "Sure, that's those New Yorker liberals, the media, trying to sabotage our president."
I know that Rather once worked at real news reporting, so he had no excuse. But I wonder if anybody else in television ever reported a story. Particularly the people at CBS News, who just might have blown any chance for an election.
All I can tell you about documents is the day Ms. Ann Marie sat in the office at the Daily News newspaper and looked darkly at this letter addressed to me in big, bold backslash printing from Son of Sam. "I don't like this," she said. She called the police commissioner's office. "I don't want any patrolman." It turned out the letter was real, and it had a print on it and this later on helped catch Son of Sam. If it was a phony, it never would have been in any newspaper.
If CBS had Ann Marie, or another real news person, who regards all documents as dangerous, CBS wouldn't be at death's door today and maybe holding Kerry by the arm.
Here is Kerry yesterday with his best speech, which gave some hope. At NYU yesterday he said that "Iraq was a diversion from the war and the battle against our greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden." Finally, he gets that into the race.
He also said, "The first and most fundamental mistake was the president's failure to tell the truth to the American people. He failed to tell the truth about the rationale for going to war. And he failed to tell the truth about the burden this war would impose on our soldiers and our citizens."
He said Bush offered 23 rationales for going to war, that his two main rationales, weapons of mass destruction and the Hussein/Sept. 11 connection have proved false. "Just last week, Secretary of State Powell acknowledged the facts. Only Vice President Cheney still insists the Earth is flat."
He said the administration policy has been plagued by "a lack of planning, an absence of candor, arrogance and incompetence."
Now he said, "Let me put it plainly. The president's policy in Iraq has not strengthened our national security. It has weakened it."
Talking over coffee yesterday with the Vietnam guys, the topic was how the Bush campaign had been able to turn Kerry's war record into something suspicious, and then move on to the next, obviously to Rather.
I said I never saw anybody do something like this so well, and the guys at the table loudly agreed.
"I don't know how they do it," George Weber was saying.
"They make black into white," Richard Breyer said.
"He's in Vietnam, and the other guy is in the National Guard so he doesn't have to go to Vietnam," Joe Bello said.
"What do they do? They turn the guy who didn't go into a hero and the guy who did go into a liar. Can you explain it to me?"
Then Anthony Quagliozzi said, "We have this vigil on Route 59, up in Nanuet, and on the other side of the road, right in front of a veterans memorial, the pro-Bush people have a rough drawing of the World Trade Center on one side and and on the other a picture of Hussein. They tell everybody that Hussein bombed the World Trade Center. They do this all over. That's part of their campaign. Don't mention bin Laden. They haven't caught him. Keep it all on Saddam Hussein."
Now three or four more came from another table and soon many voices were talking about the way Kerry's record got twisted. The political advisers say that this is an old topic and the public is tired of it, but to the guys around the table it is new grand larceny and highly discussable.
"It's Kerry's fault," one of them said.
"It's Rather's fault," the country soon was saying.
"You got to say one thing," Joe Bello of the Vietnam veterans was saying. "These other people can twist things like nobody ever could."
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