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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Leave it to Knight Ridder to actually get this one right ...

Headline: Bush criticizes ads by outside groups

Washington - President Bush sought Monday to distance himself from ads attacking Sen. John Kerry's war record and suggested that voters "should be looking forward, not backward."

But he didn't directly condemn the ads, and the controversy over Kerry's service in Vietnam showed no signs of abating.


See the rest of the piece here.

Indeed, it's not just the headlines. Look at the lede on David Espo's piece running on the AP wire, the piece that will <$NoAd$>define the coverage in daily papers across the country.

President Bush on Monday criticized a commercial that accused John Kerry of inflating his own Vietnam War record, more than a week after the ad stopped running, and said broadcast attacks by outside groups have no place in the race for the White House.


'And'?

'and said broadcast attacks by outside groups have no place in the race for the White House'?

That's all he said.

Okay, okay, I'll give it a rest ...

Reporters are endlessly getting upset with editors since editors invariably write the headlines that characterize their pieces. But clearly something has changed since I've been out of town because now apparently the sitting administration gets to write its own headlines, at least on the news wires.

The Post and the Times actually do reasonably well on this with "Bush Condemns All Ads By Independent Groups" and "Bush Urges End to Attack Ads by Outside Groups on All Sides", respectively.

But check these out ...

MSNBC: "Bush: Vets should halt anti-Kerry ads."

Yahoo News: "Bush Criticizes Anti-Kerry Television Ad."

Reuters: "Bush says Kerry ad should stop"

He said no such thing. As we noted earlier, he ducked the question, saying it's only a matter of independent expenditure ads -- a 'position' which happens not even to be his, which is a bit of a hat-trick in itself.

As we noted earlier, if someone asks me to denounce Joseph Stalin and I say, "I'm against all politicians who support the death penalty" then I haven't denounced Joseph Stalin. Or perhaps the better analogy is to pro-life zealots who refuse to denounce the murder of abortion providers directly, preferring instead to equate abortion with the shooting of those who administer them.

Great moments in headlines written with a straight face ... or, the never ending decline of CNN. Right now -- 5:59 PM -- CNN headline: "Bush urges Kerry to condemn attack ads."

From The Financial Times, left-wing rag, December 9th, <$NoAd$>2003 ...

The Bush campaign machine, well oiled and already rolling, should not be underestimated. The current president's father gained a formidable reputation as a nasty campaigner, though the presidential fingerprints were carefully wiped off negative blueprints administered by Lee Atwater, the first Mr Bush's ruthless chief strategist.

Karl Rove, a disciple of Mr Atwater, is similarly meticulous about keeping the president publicly above the fray. Yet it is an open secret in Washington that White House-blessed campaign strategists have been working quietly for months to compile potentially damaging background on all the Democratic candidates. In the early going, when it appeared Mr Kerry would emerge as the frontrunner, one senior Republican commented wryly: "By the time the White House finishes with Kerry, no one will know what side of the (Vietnam) war he fought on."


And from Bush campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, yesterday on Meet the Press ...

The fact is this campaign is unprecedented in our praise of our opponent's service during Vietnam.

There was a brief hubbub over the web earlier this afternoon when it seemed that President Bush had denounced the Swift Boat ads. Needless to say, of course, he had done no such thing. He simply repeated the line Scott McClellan has been peddling for days -- that he denounces all independent expenditure ads.

Here's the exchange ....

QUESTION: But why won't you denounce the charges that your supporters are making against Kerry?

BUSH: I'm denouncing all the stuff being on TV, all the 527s. That's what I've said.

I said this kind of unregulated soft money is wrong for the process. And I asked Senator Kerry to join me in getting rid of all that kind of soft money, not only on TV, but to use for other purposes as well.

I, frankly, thought we'd gotten rid of that when I signed the McCain-Feingold bill. I thought we were going to once and for all get rid of a system where people could just pour tons of money in and not be held to account for the advertising.

And so, I'm disappointed with all those kinds of ads.

QUESTION: This doesn't have anything to do with other 527 ads. You've been accused of mounting a smear campaign.

Do you think Senator Kerry lied about his war record?

BUSH: I think Senator Kerry served admirably and he ought to be proud of his record.

But the question is who best to lead the country in the war on terror? Who can handle the responsibilities of the commander in chief? Who's got a clear vision of the risks that the country faces?

QUESTION: Some Republicans such as Bob Dole and some Republican donors such as Bob Perry have contributed and endorsed the message of those 527 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads.

QUESTION: When you say that you want to stop all...

BUSH: All of them.

QUESTION: So, I mean...

BUSH: That means that ad, every other ad.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BUSH: Absolutely. I don't think we ought to have 527s.

I can't be more plain about it. And I wish -- I hope my opponent joins me in saying -- condemning these activities of the 527s. It's -- I think they're bad for the system. That's why I signed the bill, McCain-Feingold.

I've been disappointed that for the first, you know, six months of this year, 527s were just pouring tons of money -- billionaires writing checks. And, you know, I spoke out against them early. I tried to get others to speak out against them as well. And I just don't -- I think they're bad for the system.


He won't say it. He won't embrace it. He won't denounce it. He won't say he doesn't have an opinion. He won't say he won't get drawn into the debate. Nothing. He hides behind words and behind his friends.

As it happens, as <$Ad$>Atrios notes, this isn't even Bush's position -- at least it wasn't until it became political advantageous. He opposed the provisions he's now hanging his hat on.

But of course the bigger point is that President Bush won't denounce the ads. If someone asks me to denounce Joseph Stalin and I say, "Well, yes, I'm against all politicians who support the death penalty" then I haven't denounced Joseph Stalin, right? This is the same thing.

(MSNBC, of course, fell for it. Their headline -- as of 4:57 PM -- is "Bush: Vets Should Halt anti-Kerry Ads".)

Now, let's step back and consider where we are. Everyone in the country seems to have an opinion on this -- just go see the chat shows, the opinion columns and talk radio. Everybody has an opinion but George W. Bush, the man at the center of it all.

The reason, as we said earlier, is that the president is a coward -- a fact for which this dust-up constitutes merely an example. And as we'll discuss in a post later this evening, President Bush's moral cowardice -- not his physical cowardice or bravery, of which we know little and which is simply a side issue -- is the essence of this campaign.

Before we proceed to other matters, just a brief note on how the Republicans don't get tripped up over fastidious details.

Right at the top of Adam Nagourney's piece in yesterday's Times (in the second graf) is this ...

Mr. Bush's advisers said they were girding for the most extensive street demonstrations at any political convention since the Democrats nominated Hubert H. Humphrey in Chicago in 1968. But in contrast to that convention, which was severely undermined by televised displays of street rioting, Republicans said they would seek to turn any disruptions to their advantage, by portraying protests by even independent activists as Democratic-sanctioned displays of disrespect for a sitting president.


Now, let's pause with this for a moment.

No one believes that any of the protests scheduled for the Republican <$Ad$>convention are sanctioned by the Democratic party. Indeed, far from it -- if for no other reason than that implied in the article. Namely, that any violence or ugly scenes or anything really will tend to help the president, rather than hurt him.

It is probably true that most of the more vitriolic protestors don't even support Senator Kerry, let alone operate with his or his party's sanction. And I think I can guarentee you that the Democratic party and the Kerry campaign would vastly prefer that Kerry supporters among the demonstrators keep their heads down and their voices low or simply not show up at all -- again, for the simply reason I noted above.

There's no use in belaboring the point since everyone knows this is true. Yet here we have Nagourney's sources telling him they plan to make the case for a demonstrably false proposition.

Think about that ...

Yesterday, you'll recall, we noted that a guy named Jim Russell had written a letter to the editor of his local paper in Telluride, Colorado, saying he'd witnessed the Rassman episode and vouched for Kerry's version of events. It seems he was where he said he was. The Post mentions his account in this story today. And he was on a conference call today arranged by the Kerry campaign.

I've been pleasantly surprised that I've only received one email taking me to task over the use of the phrase 'bitch slap' to describe the meta-message behind the sort of attack politics Republicans are practicing today against John Kerry. I'm not indifferent to the coarse connotations of the phrase. But I believe that in such trying times as these precision of meaning trumps political correctness or delicacy of phrasing.

And I raise this again to draw your attention to what I believe is another example of it in Bob Dole's appearance today on Wolf Blitzer's show on CNN.

As the AP put it this afternoon ...

Dole told CNN's ''Late Edition'' that he warned Kerry months ago about going ''too far'' and that the Democrat may have himself to blame for the current situation, in which polls show him losing support among veterans.


So he went "too far" and now he has only himself to blame for the pounding he's taking.

I trust the parallels of language and <$Ad$>attitude here aren't too opaque. But my point is not to launch off on some critical studies discussion of the gendered nature of political rhetoric. It is to highlight again that the aim here is not primarily to shift blame for the current dust-up to Kerry (it's too implausible) but to use mock pity to portray him as powerless, impotent and, because of that impotence, as an object of contempt.

Now, before leaving this subject, let me touch on one other point.

In the last few days I've gotten various emails from critics (gleefully) and supporters (frettingly) of Kerry either wondering or simply asserting that Kerry brought this on himself by highlighting his service in combat in Vietnam. The point is echoed by reporters who sheepishly hang the attention they've given to the Swift Boat group on Kerry's having 'made his service an issue.'

For Kerry supporters or Democrats who think this may be true, I can only ask you, please, please do not be such chumps. And for his critics, please allow your punches to the groin the purity of their cynicism, without sullying them with any claims that Kerry forced your hand.

This was always in the cards. Always. Thus the need to get out early making the case in Kerry's favor. Since it was coming anyway, far better to hit it with the wind at your back than sitting still. The Kerry campaign's only mistake -- and it was no small one -- was not getting out ahead of it sooner.

Allow me to follow up on the piece that ran today in the Washington Post on the Kerry/Rassman episode.

As I noted earlier, the headline of the piece -- and some of the editorial remarks in it -- tried to give the impression that the Kerry camp had omitted key information, when the article itself provides no evidence of that at all.

Considering the piece a bit more, though, it strikes me just how clear an example this is of the poverty of what passes as journalistic objectivity -- the effort to find a point of balance when the facts themselves provide no basis for it.

Let me explain.

If you wade through the article, it's easy to lose track of this. But what does the article itself say? Kerry says one thing, his critics say another. But are Kerry and O'Neil really equal in this?

The military records all back up Kerry. Back in the old days -- i.e., last month --official military records used to be considered at least presumptively accurate. Now, everyone knows or should know that every after-action report or medal citation isn't necessarily the product of an exhaustive investigation. Yet, they're not meaningless. At a minimum one would assume that the burden of proof would lie with those who dispute their veracity.

So, as I say, all the Navy records support Kerry's account. On top of that, all the people who were in Kerry's boat support his version of events.

Think about that for a minute. All the people in Kerry's boat means all the people closest to the action in question support Kerry's account. Some others who were tens or hundreds of yards away, or not even present, contradict his account. Is it really so hard to distinguish between the quality of evidence and testimony that both sides are bringing to the table?

(One could, of course, add to this the fact that two people -- one of whom the Post interviewed -- from the boat behind Kerry's have now come forward to vouch for his account. And the folks doing the accusing are hardly disinterested observers since they are quite open in their contempt and animosity toward Kerry over his post-war anti-war political activism.)

If this were a civil suit, and this was accusers' evidence, it wouldn't even pass the laugh test. And yet the Post portrays the two 'sides' as if they have equal standing. As though it were he said, she said.

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