The Gall Of The Chickenhawks

This Against the Grain commentary is written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

What kind of absurd political twilight zone is it where George Bush and Dick Cheney can make John Kerry look like an unpatriotic chicken by focusing attention on his combat duty in Vietnam?

It's a doublethink world of issues-ephemera, spin, and manipulated perceptions that Bush's technicians have mastered and that we the media and we the people aid and abet: Campaign 2004, a truth odyssey.

What is the word that has more gall than gall? Nerve? Cheek, chutzpah conceit, arrogance, condescension? You name it -- the squadron of chickenhawks that steers both the campaign and government of President Bush's have pots of it. Where do these people come off impugning John Kerry's Vietnam era guts and patriotism? John McCain, Colin Powell, Tom Ridge or Chuck Hagel might have some moral standing, but not these chickenhawks.

This whole chickenhawk issue has become sort of politically incorrect, in a Republican sort of way. It's considered a rude charge. I don't buy that.

John Kerry's "national security identity" (I use this phrase because that is how campaign operators think, they are trying to forge perceptions of his character, record and patriotism) has been sliced bloody by the orchestrated switchblades of Bush's surrogates this past week. So it is hardly irrelevant that John Kerry fought in Vietnam and George Bush didn't.

The list of Bush supporter's in government, in the campaign and in the ideas industry who also had no military service at all, not just no combat, is also relevant: Karen Hughes, Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Lewis Libby, William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, and Tom Delay. Oh yeah, and Dick Cheney.

Make no mistake: the hubbub about Kerry's national security identity was a precision strike.

First, Republican House members go to the floor attacking both Kerry's voting record and his anti-war activities after he returned from his tour in Vietnam. One Republican called him "Hanoi John" on the House floor.

Then, according to The Washington Post, Republican operatives gave a newspaper and a network tape they had dug up of Kerry talking to a local D.C. television station in 1971 where he gave an account of what he did with his medals that is different than his current account.

Then the Bush-Cheney campaign released an attack ad about Kerry's national security record in the Senate using the tried and true technique of taking old votes completely out of context.

Next Karen Hughes went on CNN and said that Kerry is a phony for "pretending" to throw away his medals. She also managed to sleazily imply both that Kerry may have committed atrocities in Vietnam AND that he accused good, honest, innocent American boys of committing atrocities.

And then the Stealth Warrior, Mr. Vice President, went to Iron Curtain University in Missouri to make a high profile attack speech.

For the record, I don't think the biographical questions about Kerry -- or Bush -- are irrelevant sideshows that obscure the great debates of the day. I think they're important to voters. They're important to me. I want to know if Kerry lied a little about throwing away his medals, or why he wouldn't 'fess up to a youthful exaggeration if he did. I want know if Bush really did blow off months of his National Guard stint.

I don't think John Kerry should be exempted from scrutiny or explanation because he got shot in war. I don't think Kerry did a particularly good job of meeting the attack, but his tactics and even his character are not my current concern.

I am just -- forgive me -- galled at the gall of the chickenhawks. President Bush should not have sanctioned it.

Allow me to add a stray point: these chickenhawks had a great influence in the decision to wage war on Iraq. After the civil war, William Tecumseh Sherman noted, "It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry for blood, more vengeance. More desolation."

The most forceful advocates for war in the administration had seen the least of it. The rationales for war were cerebral, and I bought some of them, probably to my discredit.

Most wars, like the first Iraq war, have pretty clear causes, an invasion, for example. The case for this war was intellectual.

There was the Hobbesian case: the world needed a super-power policeman in the chaos and America-hating Muslim lands. There was the Americanism case: peace will only come if America exports our democracy and prosperity to the chaos and America-hating Muslim lands. There was the Evil Man case: history is made by men not invisible forces and Saddam, who used horrible weapons on his people and his neighbors, was an evil man who had to be stopped. There was the Intelligence case; Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaeda and had to be stopped.

Conservatives are usually wary of ideas and intellectualism in statecraft and politics. Not these conservatives. And for most of them, unlike for many generations of government leaders charged with national defense, their experience didn't include military experience.

But these people are, to my bewilderment, skilled at tearing down people who have made that sacrifice. They did it to Max Cleland, an ousted senator from Georgia who suffered awful wounds in Vietnam. They did it to John McCain in 2000. They're trying to do it to Kerry.

What gall.

Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.

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By Dick Meyer

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