August 12, 2004
POLITICS: Not All In The Same Boat
John Cole demolishes one of the Kerry camp's fraudulent talking points on the swift boat story: that the Swift Boat Vets aren't qualified to speak to Kerry's Vietnam experience because they were not in his boat. I'm left with three possibilities to explain why the Kerry people are relying on such thoroughly bogus arguments, coupled with foolish, bullying threats of lawsuits to stifle a poorly funded ad campaign:
1. The Swift Boat Vets are right.
2. The Kerry people are incompetent fools.
3. The Kerry people have such contempt for the public that they think this will do.
(My money's mostly on #3, but the Swifties have at least scored one apparent hit with the "Christmas in Cambodia" story that Kerry has now backed off from after saying in 1979 - when it should have been fresher in his mind - that it was "seared" in his memory).
And we have to consider who this story is aimed at. To me, John Kerry is still a war hero. But I'm not the Swift Boat Vets' target audience.
John Kerry put his life on the line for his country in Vietnam. He wore the nation's uniform; he carried out dangerous missions with people shooting at him; he could easily have died there. To me, as a man who never served, that's enough to make him a legitimate war hero - no matter that he was there "only" four months, no matter what tales he's told or how he's bragged about his service since then, no matter if he was overzealous in the heat of battle, no matter whether he deserved every medal and commendation, and no matter what he did in the anti-war movement when he came home (however much the latter point may otherwise bear on his fitness for high office). That, at some level, is the case for many of Kerry's supporters and detractors alike, and is the likely reaction of many in the public at large who have never been to war, never worn their country's uniform.
But we're not the target audience; in the end, the Swift Boat Vets aren't talking to us. I strongly suspect that the real audience - the group that's most likely to look more closely at the ins and outs of Kerry's war record with the same eyes as the men who served with him are Kerry's fellow veterans, an important swing vote this year in states like Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and West Virginia. Veterans have historically tended to be a Republican-leaning group, but not overwhelmingly, and they provided important support to Kerry in the primaries. And veterans are, I suspect, less likely to be automatically impressed by the fact that Kerry served, more willing to look at the details of his service in ways we civilians can't and won't, and more skeptical about a guy who may have (in some views) gamed the system to get decorations and shorten his service in combat, and who has certainly exploited his war record shamelessly for political profit for decades. To non-military voters, that may look like so much noise. But for Kerry, who badly wants to make inroads with undecided veterans, that kind of scrutiny is increasingly looking like a problem.
There are way too many lawyers around. Suing for libel in a Presidential campaign is ridiculous and counter-productive. If you have the goods on why you believe someone is distorting your record, you should make that case publicly and forcefully, not rely on the courts to make the people in question stop.
It is just another example of the over-legalization of the political process. Next thing you know, candidates defeated on Election Day will try and litigate their way into the White House. Oh wait…that already happened.
P.S. I agree with your analysis. I retain a very high opinion of Kerry’s service in Vietnam and am quite unlikely to change my mind on that point, but many veterans are more critical about these types of things. Which makes it all the more important that the Kerry people make at least some kind of effort to actually rebut these guys’ charges rather than just sending in lawyers and assailing the character of these men for having had the temerity to bring the issues up in the first place.