A few days ago

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A few days ago the Kerry campaign put together a new ad with Jim Rassman, the guy who Kerry plucked out of the water under fire three decades ago. Given all that’s happened, it was probably necessary to put the eyewitness in front of voters to rebut the charges of the Swift Boat group. That said, I didn’t find it a terribly effective ad. Okay, but not great.

That’s certainly no fault of Rassman’s or even necessarily the Kerry campaign. But to the extent that this whole bundle of issues has become an issue, it’s not going to be won by divining whether there was hostile fire in the air when this one incident happened. It’s necessary to validate Kerry’s good faith recollection in order not to lose, but it’s not sufficient to win.

Today, though, the Kerry campaign came out with a very powerful ad, one which in its tone and focus is exactly where the Kerry campaign needs to go.

It’s called Old Tricks and the entire ad is a brief exchange from a debate from February 15th 2000 (which the political junkies among us probably remember) in which John McCain — then in the thick of Bush’s smears — told Bush to his face to stop getting others to smear him over his war record. He ends by telling him he should be ashamed. The camera focuses on Bush and catches him not knowing how to respond, with what I think even his supporters would have to agree is a callow, trapped look on his face.

I say this is exactly where the Kerry campaign needs to go because it very powerfully captures a truth about President Bush — namely, that he’s a coward who truly lacks shame.

I don’t say he’s a coward because he kept himself out of Vietnam three decades ago. I know no end of men of that age who in one fashion or another made sure they didn’t end up in Indochina in those days. (I quickly ran through both hands counting guys I talk to on a regular basis.) And they include many of the most admirable people I know.

He’s a coward because he has other people smear good men without taking any responsibility, without owning up to it or standing behind it. And when someone takes it to him and puts him on the spot to defend his actions — as McCain does in this spot — he’s literally speechless. Like I say, a coward.

As I said earlier, this is vintage Bush. And it’s also a subtle nod to all the ways that Bush is someone who’s always gotten by with help at all the key moments from family friends, retainers and others similarly hunting for access and power.

There’s another element to this ad that we’d be remiss not to note too. It puts McCain on the spot and pulls him right back to the center of this battle. Given the fervor of his words, he can hardly disavow them or complain of their use. But there’s something else too. If you listen to the ad you’ll see McCain hangs his demand for an apology on a letter signed by five senators, each Vietnam vets, calling on Bush to apologize for his smears against McCain.

The five, as reported by the Times on February 5th, 2000: Senators Max Cleland of Georgia, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Charles S. Robb of Virginia, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

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