At first blush, the treatment given to Michael Dobbs' page-one swift-boat article in Sunday's Washington Post seems at least vaguely reassuring. There's the neutral headline "Swift Boat Accounts Incomplete," but below that, a deck-headline informing readers that "Critics Fail to Disprove Kerry's Version of Vietnam War Episode." The banner treatment, running across three-fourths of the front page above the fold, places the onus of proof where it belongs -- on the accusers, not on Kerry, a point that Bob Novak and others have chosen to ignore, obscure, or even refute; and in announcing that the proof isn't there, it seems to be a plus for Kerry.
So what's wrong with this picture? This: The Washington Post should not even be running such a story -- a takeout of something in the neighborhood of 2,700 words, I'm guessing, delving into the remotest arcana about what really happened on the Bay Hap River on March 13, 1969 -- in the first place. Len Downie and the paper's other editors would undoubtedly argue that the story represents the Post's tenacity for getting to the truth, without fear or favor. But what the story actually proves is that a bunch of liars who have in the past contradicted their own current statements can, if their lies are outrageous enough and if they have enough money, control the media agenda and get even the most respected media outlets in the country to focus on picayune "truths" while missing the larger story.
And the larger story here is clear: John Kerry volunteered for the Navy, volunteered to go to Vietnam, and then, when he was sitting around Cam Ranh Bay bored with nothing to do, requested the most dangerous duty a Naval officer could be given. He saved a man's life. He risked his own every time he went up into the Mekong Delta. He did more than his country asked. In fact he didn't even wait for his country to ask.
George W. Bush spent those same years in a state of dissolution at Yale, and would go on, as we know, to plot how to get out of going to Southeast Asia. On that subject, here's a choice quote. "I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment," Bush told the Dallas Morning News in 1990. "Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes."
Let's parse that quotation phrase for phrase. We do not, of course, know the full context of the conversation he was having with the reporter, and we don't know exactly what question Bush was asked. But his words begin from the presumption that actually going to Vietnam was absolutely not an option. The quote is entirely about how to avoid going. He wasn't prepared to damage his hearing intentionally for the sake of securing a deferment (he probably meant a 4-F classification and confused the two). And he wasn't willing to go to Canada. So he took the third option, the Air National Guard. And note how the choice was about bettering himself, not about thinking of a way to best render service that this child of privilege might -- had he been possessed of the moral fiber and sense of duty of, say, John Kerry -- have considered his obligation, especially considering that, on paper at least, he supported the war.
Dick Cheney is another who, on paper at least, supported the war. But we know Cheney's story: A series of deferments going back to 1963, when he was a student at Casper College in Wyoming. As Tim Noah reported in Slate, Cheney went on to marry -- as fate would have it, right after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, when it was clear that young single men would be called up in larger numbers than before. And then he went on to have a child, Elizabeth, born precisely nine months and two days after the Selective Service ended the proscription on the drafting of married but childless men. What a happily timed burst of passion he and Lynn were consumed by! So, while Kerry was plying the Mekong Delta, Cheney was safe and dry stateside, dropping out of Yale because his grades weren't sufficient to maintain the scholarship the school had offered him.
Everyone knows Cheney's quote, delivered to the Senate committee that was vetting him for service as George H.W. Bush's Defense Secretary, that he "had other priorities" than going to fight for his country. But he made another comment at that hearing that's less known and more damning: He said he "would have obviously been happy to serve had I been called." That, as John Nichols notes in his recent book Dick, is not just an obfuscation or a tap dance; it's a lie. He was called, and he ducked.
So now we're having a debate about whether the man who did the honorable thing may have embellished his record a little (although nothing in the documentary record suggests he did this), while we have two cowards who did everything they could to stay miles away from the place Kerry demanded he be sent. This is the fundamental truth. And while yes, Kerry has made his war service a centerpiece in a way that Bush and Cheney for obvious reasons did not, is it really Kerry who deserves scrutiny for how he behaved in 1968 and 1969? Why shouldn't the major media be doing comparisons of how Kerry, Bush, and Cheney passed those years? Why shouldn't The Washington Post be devoting 2,700 words to a comprehensive look at Cheney's deferments? Nichols identifies three young men from Casper who did die in Vietnam: Robert Cardenas, Walter Elmer Handy, and Douglas Tyrone Patrick. Did one of them die because Cheney had "other priorities"?
But The Washington Post won't do that, because there exists no Vietnam Veterans for the Truth About Deferments, financed by wealthy Democratic donors and out peddling its wares. Which is the moral of the story. Our media can sort through the facts in front of their nose and determine, at least some of the time, who's lying and who's not. But they are completely incapable of taking a step back and describing the larger reality. Doing that would require making judgments that are supposedly subjective rather than objective; but the larger reality here is clearer than clear. Just imagine if the situation were reversed: The same people now questioning Kerry's "character" would have worked to establish Bush as a war hero long ago. They would have labeled Kerry a coward. If by chance a liberal-backed group came forward to question Bush's wartime actions, they would have been called traitors and worse. And the mainstream media would be following the agenda they set every step of the way.
You'd think a press corps that has now officially acknowledged that it was had by this administration on the pre-Iraq war propaganda would think twice before letting itself get used one more time. You'd think, for example, that if the editors of the Washington Post were planning 2,700-word takeouts, they might have given priority to an investigation into ties between the White House and the Swift Boat group. If the conventions of mainstream journalism prevent our media from letting readers, viewers, and listeners examine the full truth in its broadest context, then it's time to reexamine those conventions. Until that happens, people who are willing to say anything, and who have the money to back them up, will be setting the agenda, and the media -- once upon a time, a guardian of our democratic traditions -- will be following them.
Michael Tomasky is executive editor of The American Prospect.
By Michael Tomasky
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved