In 1988, the Bush campaign planted a lie in the media that Michael Dukakis had suffered from depression after losing an election for governor. According to Susan Estrich, his campaign manager, it cost Dukakis six points in the polls. A Bush family friend planted another lie that Dukakis' wife, Kitty, had once burned a flag at a demonstration - and Dukakis took another hit in the polls.
The Bush family is at it again, with the now-well-documented lies told from the pulpit - er, podium - of the Republican National Convention, including lies told directly to the American people by George W. Bush himself. While many of these lies, like Bush's assurance that he was looking out for seniors when the next day would see the largest hike in Medicare premiums in history, were of the Bush-praising variety, the most toxic were those that either lied about John Kerry and his record, or implied that Democrats (and, implicitly, Greens and progressive independents) don't value their nation or its defense.
Which presents the Kerry campaign with the same conundrum the Dukakis, McCain, and Gore campaigns faced when confronted by Bush family lies - how to respond?
There's an old concept about fighting fair in relationships that has to do with what therapists call "the belt line." When you get to know somebody, you discover the things you can say that will irritate, bother, or even anger them. But you also learn the things you can say that will emotionally wound them. When people use those emotionally wounding things in order to win a fight, it's referred to as "hitting below the belt line."
Good marriage counselors teach couples never to hit below the belt line. The reason is simple: when a person has repeatedly been hit below the belt line, the wounds don't easily heal. Over time, if the "below the belt line" hits are repeated, the wounds will cut so deep that trust is lost, self-confidence and commitment disintegrates, and the relationship is doomed, and the recipients of the hits can be devastated - wounded beyond easy repair. The most common responses to being hit below the belt line are to endure the wounds or leave the relationship. But some people respond by hitting back below the other person's emotional belt line. This, too, is the death knell of a relationship.
Today, John Kerry faces the dilemma of a person who's been repeatedly hit below the belt line. How he responds will not only shape the outcome of this election, but may also determine how badly the psyche of the American people will be wounded.
Consider, for example, the new Swift Boat ads - probably the most powerful of the untruthful Republican below-the-belt-line efforts so far this election season.
In 1971, a young John Kerry testified before congress. "A few months ago in Detroit," he said, "we had an investigation in which over one hundred and fifty honorably discharged - many, highly decorated - veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. Not isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.
"It's impossible," Kerry continued in his testimony, "to describe to you exactly what happened in Detroit, the emotions of the moment, the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam, but they did. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do. They told the stories of times that they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Kahn, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam, in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."
There was a reason for this hearing, Kerry said, and it was why he was bringing the testimony of these 150 Vietnam veterans to Congress.
"We called this investigation the Winter Soldier Investigation," he said. "The term 'winter soldier' is a play on words of Thomas Paine's in 1776 when he spoke of the 'sunshine patriots and the summertime soldiers who deserted at Valley Forge because the going was rough. And we who've come here to Washington have come here because we feel that we have to be Winter Soldiers now. We could come back to this country and we could be quiet. We could hold our silence, we could not tell what went on in Vietnam.
"But we feel, because of what threatens this country - the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds and not redcoats, but the crimes that threaten it - that we have to speak out." (You can listen to or download the MP3 audio here.)
Kerry's testimony was not a blanket condemnation of all veterans as the Swift Boat ads suggest. Nor was it an accusation against our soldiers as the Republicans chant like a mantra.
It was, instead, the report of an investigation that he had helped lead into the consequences of trying to fight a guerilla war against the citizens of a nation who viewed American soldiers as occupiers and aggressors, rather than liberators. That view of American soldiers by the nationalistic citizens of Vietnam fueled the ferocity of their battle against an army they perceived as invaders - invaders who ultimately killed between 2 and 3 million Vietnamese - and led American forces to often ferocious and brutal responses, often perceived by both officers and soldiers as necessities for survival.
Just as when John Kerry, as a United States Senator, investigated the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) and exposed a vast criminal syndicate with tentacles into both the Bush family and members of his own Democratic Party, his Winter Soldier investigation uncovered troubling truths. Like his BCCI investigation, the Winter Soldier investigation produced both painful consequences to malefactors of great wealth and political power, and helped cleanse us of a cancerous and corrupt wound. And just like with his investigation of BCCI, Kerry's Winter Soldier investigation produced wealthy Republican enemies.
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Those enemies have now chosen to fight back by striking Kerry "below the belt," taking his words out of context and twisting their meaning. They seek to pit veteran against veteran, non-veterans against Vietnam era veterans, and turn the attention away from the criminal actions of LBJ, Nixon, Kissinger, and other perpetrators of Vietnam, and on to the man who raised the questions and exposed the unpleasant truths.
How can he respond? This isn't a fight between two people, where the wounded party can simply walk away - these scurrilous charges are being made by wealthy associates of the Bush family in the most public of venues - the nation's airwaves. To try to suppress them by going to court and challenging their untruthfulness will be fruitless - it won't produce results until long after the elections are over. And if Kerry were to hit back below the belt - for example by taking some of George W. Bush's past statements out of context and twisting them into a new and venomous meaning - he would become his enemy, joining the ancient and evil tribe of what psychiatrist M. Scott Peck so accurately and poignantly called "The People of the Lie."
Bush partisans try to deflect our attention from this below-the-belt attack by pointing out the millions of dollars spent on above-the-belt (e.g. accurate and undisputed) attack ads run against Bush over the past months, citing his record on job creation, outsourcing, the disaster of Iraq, and the like. But as we all know - usually from painful experience - below-the-belt attacks are fundamentally different. There is no moral equivalence, and to claim that there is - as Karen Hughes did recently on CNN, and both Laura Bush and George H.W. Bush did just before the Republican National Convention - is only to compound the evil of the lie.
The other problem this sort of attack produces is that negative campaign advertisements do not have as their goal to produce votes for a particular candidate - instead, their singular goal is to suppress the vote, to produce a "they're all bums" response among voters. Thus, American voter participation is at shocking lows.
While America has seen many hard-hitting campaigns - dating back to 1799 when an associate of John Adams hired a newspaperman to print (true) stories alleging that his opponent Thomas Jefferson had been sleeping with his widow's half-sister, his slave Sally Hemmings - only very rarely have they been so grounded in basic deception and, thus, truly below-the-belt hits. Unfortunately, as the elder Bush learned with Lee Atwater's abovementioned efforts and his Willie Horton ads against Dukakis, they work, because they leave the victim with so few rebuttal options.
So how to respond?
Simple: tell the truth. And do it with righteous anger, as Joseph Welch did to Joe McCarthy on June 9, 1954, exploding another house of cards built on lies and bully tactics. (MP3 clip here) And tell the truth not just on behalf of the candidate, but on behalf of all of the American people and our democratic republic.
This sort of response will work most powerfully because the real victim is not so much Kerry as it is you and me, the American electorate, We the People. We - Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Greens, Independents - are being wounded by the Bush lies, as is the vital and precious electoral process that generations of Americans have fought and died to defend.
We the People - through Kerry, the DNC, or third party 527s, or simply by spreading the truth one-to-another - must right this horrible wrong. We must expose the fundamental evil of Big Lie techniques in politics.
We must hold up to the light of truth John Kerry's noble and courageous 1971 attempt to stop an unjust war and heal the veterans who had been criminally ordered to commit atrocities by civilian powers in the White House and Department of Defense. And we must hold up to the light of truth the people and motivations behind these morally criminal political smears.
It could take the form of a simple ad that plays the first few sentences of Kerry's testimony before Congress, and points out his courage to investigate that, then BCCI, and, in April 1986, his chairing the Senate subcommittee on the Iran-Contra hearings. It could even bluntly point out the lies in the entire series of Swift Boat ads and other Bush statements, and then - like Joseph Welch - ask Americans if we will continue to tolerate lies in what should be honest, democratic debate.
"Whenever the people are well-informed," Thomas Jefferson noted in a letter to Dr. Price in 1789, "they can be trusted with their own government. Whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights."
If the Kerry campaign and the DNC and the corporate-owned media are all, ultimately, unwilling to discuss the truth of the Bush family tactics, then we must do so ourselves.
The result - regardless of the outcome of this election - will be a healing of the democratic process. It will also salve the psyches of Americans who have been brutalized by Osama Bin Laden, by an incompetent administration that played right into his hand by elevating him to international prominence (and then let him escape), and by repeated lies and smears that do as much violence to American democracy as did 15 Saudis with box cutters that horrible day three years ago.
We must help America become, as Jefferson said, "well-informed," and, thus, heal our national psyche from the wounds inflicted on it these past decades by the Bush family. It begins with you and me: Pass it along.