The most contentious issue of the upcoming presidential election so far is history. Whoever expected that we'd be re-fighting thirty and forty year old arguments about the Vietnam War?
In a sense, John Kerry brought it on himself. Trying to wrest patriotism from its Republican stranglehold, Kerry has over-emphasized his Vietnam record as combat hero. But the Republicans also play "capture the flag" and when they are losing re-write the rules.
The controversy over Vietnam began with a TV advertisement by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Members claim that Kerry's three purple hearts and silver and bronze stars were undeserved, that he lied about his combat service.
Leader of the group is a Texas Republican named John O'Neill who, enraged by Kerry's opposition to the war, emerged in 1971 as the Nixon administration's point man in attacking Kerry.
The Vietnam War is a subject for on-going disagreement. Although the historical consensus is that the war was wrong and our defeat inevitable, there are still true believers who, like O'Neill, bitterly believe that anti-war activists were responsible for what happened. But it's not legitimate or honest to do what the anti-Kerry veterans have done: question Kerry's military record. They are reviewing old history through partisan-filtered 35-year old memories and willful distortion of documented facts.
The accusations against Kerry defy common sense. If true, we would have to believe that an obscure lieutenant was able to connive with the medics who treated his wounds and the superior officers who commended his bravery in order to obtain medals that he did not earn. It's notable that Kerry's crewmates all support his veracity. Are we to believe that Kerry conned them too?
While it may be true that the Vietnam era military was over-generous in handing out medals, that is not what the anti-Kerry veterans assert. They single out Kerry, claiming that out of ambition, egotism and cowardice, he scammed the Pentagon to create a heroic combat record.
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Given the Republican Party's recent history of smearing political opponents, the media should have been skeptical. But the tabloid media, especially cable news, operates on the Chicken Little theory of news reporting. If a chicken proclaims that the sky is falling, cable news invites talking heads to argue the issue. No one bothers to go outside and look up at the sky.
On CNN, for example, Republican Bob Dole accused Kerry of feigning his wounds ("two in one day," Dole claimed). Kerry, Dole asserted, "was out of there in less than four months because three Purple Hearts and you're out." Kerry, however, was wounded in December 1968 and in February and March 1969. Dole's comments were based on partisanship, not factual knowledge. But instead of challenging Dole to substantiate his accusation, Blitzer let him rant on.
There are a few serious newspapers that seek to get at the truth. Kate Zernike and Jim Rutenberg, reporters for the NY Times, investigated the anti-Kerry swift boat group. They found out that none of the anti-Kerry veterans had actually served on Kerry's boat. Some of them, in fact, were admirers of Kerry when he received his medals. Retired Rear Admiral Roy F. Hoffmann, who is prominent in the anti-Kerry group, had written a commendation of Kerry's leadership at the time they were both in Vietnam. George Elliot, who processed Kerry's medals as an officer in Vietnam, says in the advertisement that --John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam." But in 1969 he wrote a fitness report, stating, "In a combat environment often requiring independent decisive action, Lt. j.g Kerry was unsurpassed."
More damning is the fact that the anti-Kerry veterans have been financed by Texas Republicans with strong ties to the Bush campaign. Bob J. Perry, a Texas associate of White House political advisor Karl Rove, gave the veterans $200,000 to broadcast their ad. For legal and media advice, the anti-Kerry veterans went to Benjamin L. Ginsberg, the GOP's foremost legal advisor on campaign issues, and Chris LaCivita, the former political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Spokesperson for the anti-Kerry vets is Merrie Spaeth, formerly a media consultant for Republicans for Clean Air. This was a group formed in 2000 on behalf of George W. Bush to attack John McCain's admirable environmental record. It turned out that Republicans for Clean Air consisted of just two Texas millionaires, friends of Bush and financial contributors to his presidential campaign. When it came to planning a sleazy operation, the anti-Kerry veterans knew who to go to for expert direction.
The swift boat group is organized as a so-called "527" a non-profit political action committee. 527s can raise unlimited amounts of money for political ads as long as they are not coordinated with official party or candidate organizations. Supporters of Kerry and the Democrats have their own 527 committees, but none have produced ads so blatantly dishonest.
Republicans, like Democrats, are technically correct in insisting that their 527s are indeed independent. The political insiders organizing and funding the 527s don't need the official campaigns to give them marching orders.
While Bush has refused to condemn the anti-Kerry swift boat advertisements, he is demanding a cessation of all 527 advertisements (the one fund-raising scheme in which the Democrats have been successful). This enables him to take a political high road while getting maximum mileage from the anti-Kerry slanders. Bush has always opposed restrictions on political spending. What he's doing here is cynical posturing. Kerry ought to call his bluff, up the ante, and demand that Bush support across-the-board campaign finance reform, not just restrictions on 527 advertisements. He also ought to get out of Vietnam and refocus his campaign on real-time, real-life issues like Iraq, the economy, the environment, health care, the right of personal privacy, civil liberties, the separation of church and state, and the narrow right-wing and neoconservative ideologies driving the Republican Party.