"Let's get some things straight here. There is a right-wing slime machine. It has kicked into gear with this phony attack on Kerry's military record. Bush benefits from the ad and condones it. And if Kerry doesn't hit back harder, it could cost him the election."
That's a quote from Jacob Weisberg, Editor of Slate, from an exchange he has with his colleague Will Saletan today about the Swift Boat ads and a contending ad from Moveon.org which questions President Bush's military service.
The exchange is quite worth your while to read for several reasons.
First of all, Saletan takes the Swift-Boat ad and in a few crisp paragraphs shows how all the charges are either unfalsifiable claims about Kerry's character (i.e., he sucks, isn't a good guy, isn't trustworthy, etc.), ones that have no basis in available evidence, or -- in more cases -- are specifically contradicted by the available evidence.
Will likely would have been aided in this work of demolition by this new front page article from tomorrow's The Washington Post. Larry Thurlow is one of Kerry's most vocal critics. He's a member of the Swift Boat group; he's in the group that put out the ads, etc. Thurlow's claim to fame is his contention that Kerry's boat wasn't actually under fire in a 1969 incident for which Kerry was awarded a Bronze Star.
The Post asked Thurlow to release his records. He refused because "he was unwilling to authorize release of his military records because he feared attempts by the Kerry campaign to discredit him and other anti-Kerry veterans." It seems he had some reason for concern. The Post got the records from a Freedom of Information Act request; and they back up Kerry's version of events.
On the one hand it's tempting to smile or take some grim satisfaction in seeing this character hoisted on his own petard. But doing so would give these guys too much credit. Catching a liar lying isn't a coup; it's a definition. Indeed, these aren't just lies. The whole campaign is probably literally libelous -- an effort coordinated between various parts of the right-wing slime machine, as Weisberg aptly calls it.
What Weisberg also makes clear is how ridiculous it is to even compare the Swift Boat ad with those now being run by Moveon.org. One has demonstrable falsehoods, while the other contains two statements which are certainly true and have been reported by newspapers around the country (viz, that Bush got into the Guard with family connections and was later grounded) and another that is almost certainly true but not provable from available evidence (viz, that he 'went missing').
There is a great desire among journalists to appear even-handed in such cases and create equivalences where there simply are none. And this is a great case of that. This is the sort of character assassination that our domestic Falange specializes in, the sort of effort that the standard Washington types usually lament as a grievous wrong several years after it happens, but never at the time. The effort is being put together by the president's supporters. He is benefitting greatly from it. And he and his aides have gone out of their way not to criticize it in any way.
On the campaign trail President Bush makes no effort to distance himself from it at all. Quite the contrary, in fact, as in this exchange from an 'Ask President Bush' session last Friday in Oregon ...
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, sir.
Q On behalf of Vietnam veterans -- and I served six tours over there -- we do support the President. I only have one concern, and that's on the Purple Heart, and that is, is that there are over 200,000 Vietnam vets that died from Agent Orange and were never -- no Purple Heart has ever been awarded to a Vietnam veteran because of Agent Orange because it's never been changed in the regulations. Yet, we've got a candidate for President out here with two self-inflicted scratches, and I take that as an insult. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you for your service. Six tours? Whew. That's a lot of tours.
Let's see, who've we got here? You got a question?
What a stand-up guy ...
In any case, Kerry does need to hit back harder. Probably not directly, as that might exacerbate the problem, but with surrogates who will hit back much harder and start putting into play the president's record if he doesn't relent. Really, though, this comes back to the press, whether they'll allow the president to play the silent accomplice in this character assassination and pay no price for his actions.
As Weisberg puts it, "The ad is a carefully crafted lie ... beyond vile."
Unfortunately, lies like this, once uttered, are impossible to counter in their entirety, just as mud thrown against a wall makes a terrible mess even though it doesn't stick. The only way to counter such misdeeds is to shine a light on those cynical and deceitful enough to seek to gain from them. That would be the president and his supporters. But on this front most of the media are content to act as indifferent bystanders to the offense.