Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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.

The Bush campaign and truth ...

Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman: "The fact is this campaign is unprecedented in our praise of our opponent's service during Vietnam."

Apropos of Mehlman's Orwellian remark, who sent Bob Dole onto the Sunday shows today?

Dole doesn't make such appearances not under direction. He's a party man, a partisan.

There's nothing wrong with that. But that means he doesn't freelance. But who gave him his talking points?

It answers itself. The White House sent him out.

Needless to say, it's not a question that occurred to Blitzer to ask. But someone should. One of the biggs should ring him up.

Today Bob Dole suggested that one or more of John Kerry's Purple Hearts may have been fraudulent in some way because they were for "superficial wounds."

Dole knows better.

In a 1988 campaign-trail autobiography, here's how Dole described the incident that earned him his first Purple Heart: "As we approached the enemy, there was a brief exchange of gunfire. I took a grenade in hand, pulled the pin, and tossed it in the direction of the farmhouse. It wasn't a very good pitch (remember, I was used to catching passes, not throwing them). In the darkness, the grenade must have struck a tree and bounced off. It exploded nearby, sending a sliver of metal into my leg--the sort of injury the Army patched up with Mercurochrome and a Purple Heart."

As long as reliving what we did in the late 1960s is all the rage, here's a thought.

Ben Barnes was the Speaker of the Texas State House back in 1968. And he was the one who pushed young George W. Bush to the head of the Texas Air National Guard queue after dad's friends came calling. Remember, dad was a congressman from Houston.

Back in 1998, wrote Mike Isikoff in Newsweek in July 2000, "concerned that Barnes might go public with his allegations, the Bush campaign sent Don Evans, a friend of W's, to hear Barnes's story. Barnes acknowledged that he hadn't actually spoken directly to Bush Sr. and had no documents to back up his story. As the Bush campaign saw it, that let both Bushes off the hook."

Now, as fate would have it, Ben Barnes is a Democrat. Was then, is now. And he supports John Kerry.

But he's never really spoken openly about how he helped Bush hop in front of everyone else or other aspects of the president's abbreviated military service, about which he is said to know a great deal.

Maybe now would be the time?

Texas politics is different from Washington politics. Dems and Republicans are often tight. And I believe Barnes' is a state lobbyist nowadays. So while supporting the Dem nominee may be an acceptable deviation, nailing the president on the Guard issue in what is now a Republican-dominated state probably wouldn't be good for business.

But maybe now's the time for him to step up to the plate ...

Can't we get Molly Ivins or some other worthy to put in a call? Maybe just ask him what he thinks of the Swift Boat business.

It seems like there might be another vet who's coming forward vouching for Kerry's and Kerry's crewmates' version of events on the day the Rassman incident happened.

There was a letter to the editor to a local daily paper in Telluride, Colorado on Friday, August 20th -- that's the paper's weekend edition. The letter writer identifies himself as Jim Russell and says he was "assigned as Psychological Operation Officer for the Swift Boat group out of An Thoi, Vietnam, from January 1969 to October 1969. As such, I was on No. 43 boat, skippered by Don Droz ..."

Now, the demand for folks who were on that piece of water that day must be pretty intense at the moment. And it would seem odd that anyone at this point has yet to be contacted and chatted up by the press.

I have no way of knowing whether this guy was where he says he was on that day. And it could be a hoax. But I did call the editor of the paper, Suzanne Cheavens. She says she knows the guy (small town, I guess), knows he's a Vietnam vet, and vouched for his credibility.

Some reporter should see if they can track this down and confirm or dispute that he was there on the day in question.

On the front page of the Washington Post website, the headline for Michael Dobbs' piece on the Swift Boat controversy reads: "Both Sides Flawed on Swift Boat Accounts: Kerry's critics and supporters offer incomplete version of war episode."

(I let my subscription to the WaPo electronic edition lapse because the interface is so poor. And I'm not in DC; so I don't know if that's how the headline on the print edition read too.)

But I have a hard time reconciling that headline with what the article actually says. To me, the headline implies that both camps are telling only partial versions of the real story and in some way thus tilting the story in their favor.

In other words, noone is telling the whole truth and the Post is here to give it to you straight.

But after reading the piece, I don't know what that's based on. The article shows that there are two camps (one pro- and one anti-Kerry). They agree on some points and disagree on others about the incident in question. The heart of the disagreement is whether Kerry was under fire when the incident with Rassman happened. Everyone on Kerry's boat says, yes. Several people in the same five boat flotilla say, no. (The Post found another sailor, not on Kerry's boat, who also remembers being under fire, and thus supports Kerry's account.)The available naval records (from after action reports and award citations) also say there was hostile fire.

The anti-Kerry folks say those reports were either written by Kerry or influenced by him -- a charge for which they provide no evidence and for which there appears to be evidence to the contrary.

(What also come across clearly, if never explicitly, is that this whole episode happened more than thirty years ago to a bunch of men who were either teenagers or in their early twenties. All of them were gunned up with adrenaline, thinking they might be about to get killed. And thus, none of the accounts are precisely the same.)

That's pretty much the story, and the nature of the conflicting accounts, as we've already understood them. But I read the whole thing and couldn't find where either side was holding back key details. What Dobbs seems to be referring to is the fact (noted in the graf that begins "Some of the mystery ...") that there are documents -- diaries and logs, mainly -- which both sides have not yet made publicly available, or at least didn't make available to Dobbs.

That seems worth pointing out. But it hardly seems to merit the headline -- which, as it so often does, ends up shaping the reaction to the story. Perhaps I missed the points the headline refers to. If you think I have, please drop me a line.

From the Boston Globe's Sunday editorial .<$NoAd$>..

IMAGINE IF supporters of Bill Clinton had tried in 1996 to besmirch the military record of his opponent, Bob Dole. After all, Dole was given a Purple Heart for a leg scratch probably caused, according to one biographer, when a hand grenade thrown by one of his own men bounced off a tree. And while the serious injuries Dole sustained later surely came from German fire, did the episode demonstrate heroism on Dole's part or a reckless move that ended up killing his radioman and endangering the sergeant who dragged Dole off the field?

The truth, according to many accounts, is that Dole fought with exceptional bravery and deserves the nation's gratitude. No one in 1996 questioned that record. Any such attack on behalf of Clinton, an admitted Vietnam draft dodger, would have been preposterous.

Yet amazingly, something quite similar is happening today as supporters of President Bush attack the Vietnam record of Senator John Kerry.

Read the whole thing.

A thought about the follow-up on the Swift Boat ads.

Today at a rally, John Edwards said, among other things, "This is a moment of truth for George W. Bush. We're going to see what kind of man he is and what kind of leader he is. ... We want to hear three words: Stop these ads."

Okay for today. But no more of this.

We already know what kind of a man he is. He's got a track record.

I'm tempted to say, if we didn't, why run against him? But of course political differences between good men are more than adequate justifications for a presidential contest -- consider Clinton v. Dole in 1996.

But that's not the case here. So, to be frank, this line has some element of disingenuousness.

Far more important, it's whining. Begging. At a minimum, it can come off or be characterized that way. And it sounds weak. This is about hitting back, not flaunting high-mindedness.

If the president's behavior is really as bad as the Kerry-Edwards team is saying it is, then it's really past the point of asking him to do the right thing and redeem himself.

The excellent ad the Kerry campaign put out today -- the one with McCain confronting Bush -- ends with the line "America can do better."

It doesn't say, "George W. Bush, please stop" or "George W. Bush should do the right thing." It says "America can do better" or, in other words, he's shown us what kind of person he is and he shouldn't be president.

No need to be nasty. "America can do better" says all that needs be said. Drive that point home and move the debate back to the president's failed record at home and abroad.

Try "George W. Bush is back to his old tricks because he doesn't want to talk about X (his bad record on jobs), Y (his failed policies in Iraq), Z (you get the idea.)"

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.