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Slander is Cheap

The success of the Swift Boat Vet campaign against John Kerry reveals just how easy it is to rewrite history in current media climate.
 
 
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They used to say, "You can't buy publicity like this!"

Oh but you can! A few hundred thousands in donations to the "Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth" (SBVFT) produced an ad that only airs in a few small markets – and is guaranteed priceless hours of free national airtime on the right wing talk shows, cable channels like Fox and MSNBC and the other channels that let them dictate the news agenda. George Orwell could almost have written, "He who controls the check-book controls the past."

By Tuesday morning, the Swift Boat story is leading political coverage on the mainstream news networks as well. Americans who were never intended to see the ads on their local stations, now see segments of them as part of the pervasive national news coverage that now reverberates from the controversy. It's fair to say that more than half the population has seen at least portions of the spot. What they're missing is investigative news coverage vetting the Swift Boat Veterans' claims – that Kerry served less than honorably during the Vietnam War.

You really have to admire a smooth operation that has, if we can mix metaphors, the cloven hoof prints of Bush's brain, Karl Rove, all over it. He is associated with one of the chief funders of the ad, and a member of Bush's veterans' support committee actually appeared in it!

Even so, the Bush campaign disclaims all responsibility for the smear ads. Just as it did with the similar smears on Senators John McCain and Max Cleland.

Bush's announcement that he was "disappointed" with the ads, and that Kerry served "admirably," is almost certainly inspired less by genuine contrition than a desire to head off the increasing interest in where Bush was during the Vietnam war, which has arisen because of the SBVFT ad.

Rove has a proven track record of successful smearing, based at least in part on the victims being too "decent" to counter attack, or even in the case of John Kerry last week being so self-defeatedly "decent" as to denounce the counterattack MoveOn mounted on his behalf.

This is a trope that was even picked up by Bill O'Reilly on Fox TV who clucked lugubriously about the Swift Boat ads – but one notes with interest that such pieties are always accompanied by a replaying of the original smears. As the poet said:

Bear not false witness; let the lie
Have time on its own wings to fly

Kerry immediately took up John McCain's invitation to attack the MoveOn ads that countered the SBVFT smears. I hope he was doing so with tongue in cheek. There is a difference between smearing and mentioning painful truths.

The MoveOn ads call upon Bush to disown the attacks on Kerry and point out that Bush dodged the war by using parental influence to join the National Guard – and then went missing. In fact, this is no smear – it's irrefutable. Such of the records that have not been burnt, shredded or misfiled show very clearly that young George W. Bush joined the National Guard with the sole and expressed intention of avoiding service in Vietnam, and also that he did not complete his duty with the Guard.

In fact, McCain had earlier put it succinctly, and, I hope, ironically, when he originally condemned the ads attacking Kerry. "I think John Kerry served honorably in Vietnam. I think George Bush served honorably in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War."

But McCain is also doing Karl Rove's work when he says the MoveOn ad is a "disservice" to members of the National Guard who are "fighting and dying in Iraq." It is one of the Bush campaign's consistent tropes to equate any suggestion that Bush was less than heroic by joining the National Guard during the Vietnam War with an attack on the current Guard personnel who are providing a half or so of the troops in Iraq. Today's National Guards cannot tick a box saying "no" to overseas service, which is what George Bush did.

In contrast, Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post deserves considerable kudos for checking out the records to discover, for example, that one of the veterans, Larry Thurlow, who has denied that the boats were under fire in the incident that won John Kerry a bronze star, won his own bronze star – with a citation saying that they were under fire together!

The Post's Freedom of Information request for documents contrasts honorably with the frequent uncritical media acceptance of the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" allegations. Every time a reporter as assiduous as Dobbs checks the contemporary record, it gives them the lie.

Sadly, however, a significant number of Americans will not be affected by any amount of evidence about Bush, nor any amount of rebuttal from Kerry. In their universe, someone who dodged the war and supported it is morally superior to someone who fought in it and opposed it.

The pathetic sight of Vietnam veterans at the Ohio Veterans of Foreign Wars convention who had applauded George W. Bush, turning their backs on Kerry, who was in Vietnam, show the continuing post-traumatic effects of Vietnam on some veterans.

Kerry should encourage the MoveOn ads. It is a legitimate question why the President supported a controversial war in which he refused to serve all those decades ago.

Even so, by making his Vietnam War record such a central plank of his campaign, Kerry has walked into an ambush. Why should service in a shabby losing war that killed millions of Vietnamese and more than fifty thousand Americans, and which he honorably disagreed with on his return, be such an important part of his platform?

For a huge number of voters, Vietnam itself is ancient history, but Bush has led us into an action replay of it, which has led to almost a thousand American dead and up to 20,000 Iraqi fatalities, a war that is still raging a year after the President in spurious military plumage declared "Mission Accomplished" on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

Where are the casualty figures? How many lives and limbs are being lost in this dubious battle? That would surely inject some relevance into a campaign. But to do so John Kerry needs to stop allowing himself to be impaled by Vietnam, and come down off the fence on this real present war.

Ian Williams' new book "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans, and his Own Past" from Nation Books, is available on Amazon.