If you had any thought that the first presidential campaign after 9/11 would be especially sober and responsible, give it up.
There are a million angles to the saga of John Kerry and his swift boat enemies and none of them reveal anything virtuous about politics. But one element that is missing from this story is surprise.
Any student of Bush family campaigns could have seen the swift boat shiv shining a mile away. This old family has traditions – horseshoes, fishing, bad syntax and having the help do the dirty work in campaigns as well as the kitchen. And they are very good at getting jobs done without leaving fingerprints, without compromising their patrician image and their alleged character.
Even the audaciousness of this year's episode is not surprising. Who would have believed that George Bush, with all the , could get John Kerry in hot water for his combat duty and medals in Vietnam? Well, anyone who saw what George Bush did to former POW John McCain in the 2000 primaries, which was even more outrageous.
The ancestral origin of Bush family gut fighting came in George H. W. Bush's 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis in the form of the infamous Willie Horton ad. (Historical footnote: Horton actually went by William, not Willie, and is referred as William in all legal documents; the ad makers thought Willie sounded scarier and blacker.)
That ad was produced by an outfit allegedly independent of the official campaign. It wasn't aired on TV much but got most of its play in the press. Papa Bush and his official staff maintained they knew nothing about such déclassé skullduggery. There was nothing blatantly untrue about the ad, but it was hugely misleading and subtly racist.
The ad also attacked Dukakis right where he was supposed to be strongest. If the Duke had a strength (a big if), it was as a highly competent government CEO who led the Massachusetts Miracle. The ad gave an emotional snapshot of a guy whose incompetence let a killer out of jail so he could commit assault and rape. It worked.
The mantle passed to Bush the Younger in 1994 when he ran for governor of Texas against Ann Richards. She was a salty, strong, unmarried woman. And guess what? A whispering campaign got rolling in East Texas that she was gay and so were some of her staffers. Then one of the Bush campaign's local chairmen told a reporter that Richards' appointment of "avowed homosexuals" might become a campaign issue. In the twisted way the press legitimizes talking about questionable issues, that remark made the whole deal fair game.
In 2000, McCain had George W. on the ropes and South Carolina was the do-or-die state. Flyers appeared from thin air alleging that McCain had a black child (he and his wife had adopted a Bangladeshi daughter from an orphanage there). Other fliers said McCain was the "fag candidate." Rumors swirled that McCain's time in a North Vietnamese prison camp had left him unstable and downright crazy - again, hitting at the opponent's greatest strength. Other rumors were that his wife was a drug addict. Nice stuff, and none of it had Bush's inky fingerprints on it.
At an event with Bush, a vet from some fringe group accused McCain of abandoning veterans. That really set McCain off and he demanded an apology from Bush. Bush simply said that he believed McCain "served our country nobly." That's what he says about Kerry now. Above the fray, clean hands, patrician.
Soon after that, a mysterious group dumped $2 million into ads in more liberal New York attacking McCain's environmental record and boosting Bush's. Eventually, it turned out the ads were bankrolled by a big Bush donor named Sam Wyly. No Bush fingerprints there either.
You get the picture. The big question is why John Kerry didn't.
When the swift boaters launched their dark craft did he think it would just vanish? That would be like Bill Clinton thinking the Monica Lewinsky story would disappear. Kerry responded indecisively and weakly.
Kerry and his campaign are not innocents in all this. Independent 527 groups opposed to Bush have pumped far more cash into the race than the anti-Kerry groups and they, too, have made irresponsible assertions. And though two Bush campaign officials have now quit because of their ties to the swift boaters, Kerry's operation has all the same kind of ties to the anti-Bush groups.
What Kerry and the Democrats do not have is an explicitly ideological cable network, a dedicated publishing house and a pantheon of sympathetic, wildly popular talk radio shows that essentially function as 527 groups.
The non-Fox networks and major newspapers covered the Kerry charges just as they did the charges about Bush's National Guard service – they tried to dig out the truth. The Democrats have plenty of rich donors, 527 groups, Air America and, for the sake of argument, reporters infected by liberal bias. They wish they had the media propaganda apparatus the Republicans have, but they don't.
It is also said that Kerry brought this on himself by making his Vietnam service part of his campaign. But that's absurd. What was he supposed to do, ignore it? He did volunteer, he did command a boat, he was shot at and did get the medals.
The claims that Kerry lied about his record have been as debunked as any historical claim about a distant combat action can be. And just because someone talks about something in their past in a campaign doesn't mean that it's okay for other people to lie about it.
Kerry's anti-war activities when he got back home will always attract fierce opposition, even loathing, whether or not there are scurrilous 527s beating up on him. And the mixed portrait of him as a war hero and anti-war hero will always ring false for many who see him as a compulsive flip-flopper and have-it-both-ways guy.
But despite Kerry's own Brahmin lineage, patrician bearing and vast wealth, he's a poor relation when it comes to hiring help to do the dirty work.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer