Let Them Do the Dirty Work

In response to the intensifying controversy over the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attack on John Kerry, spokespeople for the Bush campaign and the White House have denied any connection between the Bush campaign and the Swift Vets, and they have maintained that Bush has not participated in the effort to denigrate Kerry's service in Vietnam.

But Bush has refused to denounce the ads produced by the Swift Vets and instead has only generally criticized the existence of such (supposedly) independent political hit-jobs. Yesterday The New York Times quoted Bush campaign flack Steve Schmidt insisting, "The president has made clear that he regards John Kerry's service as noble service."

Perhaps. But when Bush had the chance to make clear that he considered Kerry's service "noble," Bush took a pass. In fact, he even – nod, nod, wink, wink – encouraged criticism of Kerry's record by maintaining silence when his fervent supporters repeated the Swift Vets' criticisms.

At one of his "Ask President Bush" events – those faux townhall meetings attended only by Bush fans screened by the Republicans – Bush took questions from the crowd in Oregon. As usual, many of the remarks were fawning comments praising Bush, rather than serious questions about his actions and policies. And two Bush backers in the crowd referred to the Swift Vets' campaign against Kerry. Here are those exchanges, taken from the transcript on the official White House website:

Q: Mr. President, Mr. Kerry seems to have a lot of trouble remembering dates – when and if he was in Cambodia; who was President – Nixon or Johnson – when he was assigned to Vietnam; what bills in Congress he worked for and when; cannot remember if he campaigned in Oregon or California for George McGovern. Your last opponent you exposed with fuzzy math. It's time to expose John Kerry with fuzzy memory. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: You got a question?

Q: I, too, want to say God bless you, Mr. Bush. My husband and my twins and I pray for you daily, as do many home schoolers. (Applause.) Thank you for recognizing home schoolers.

THE PRESIDENT: You bet. Thanks. (Applause.) I appreciate you saying that.

And later....

Q: On behalf of Vietnam veterans – and I served six tours over there – we do support the President. I only have one concern, and that's on the Purple Heart, and that is, is that there are over 200,000 Vietnam vets that died from Agent Orange and were never – no Purple Heart has ever been awarded to a Vietnam veteran because of Agent Orange because it's never been changed in the regulations. Yet, we've got a candidate for President out here with two self-inflicted scratches, and I take that as an insult. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you for your service. Six tours? Whew. That's a lot of tours. Let's see, who've we got here? You got a question?

Bush was playing footsie with the charges against Kerry: that Kerry wounded himself to earn his Purple Hearts, that he has lied about being ordered to Cambodia while in Vietnam. Bush listened to these echoes of the Swift Vets' attacks and said nothing, implying, of course, that he concurred. At the least, he showed he was willing to accept the political gains of these blasts against Kerry's "noble service." Is it really honoring Kerry's service essentially to nod as others denigrate it?

But this is part of the Bush playbook. In 2000, Bush and his campaign engaged in precisely the same dirty politics. After Senator John McCain walloped Bush in the New Hampshire primary and the GOP nomination battle seemed to hinge on the primary in South Carolina, home to many retired military veterans, Bush appeared at a campaign rally with J. Thomas Burch Jr., the chairman of a marginal outfit called the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition. Burch bitterly decried McCain for "always" opposing veterans legislation, including measures concerning Agent Orange, health care and the Gulf War. When Burch finished slamming McCain, Bush shook his hand and said, "Thank you, buddy."

There was one problem. What Burch had said was a lie. McCain had cosponsored the Agent Orange act that became law. He also had testified in favor of legislation to provide compensation to Gulf War vets struck by unexplained illnesses. Perhaps Bush had not been aware of McCain's record on veterans' issues. But after news accounts noted that Burch had lied and after five senators who had fought in Vietnam (including two Republicans) termed Burch's allegations "absolutely false," Bush refused to repudiate Burch. Instead, the Bush campaign crowed about the effectiveness of Burch's phony attack. Bush campaign spokesman Tucker Eskew said, "The McCain campaign is squawking because we hit them where they hurt. McCain and the media created a myth of the [pro-McCain] military monolith in [South Carolina], and we exploded that. We challenged him on his greatest point of pride, and they stomped their feet, pointed fingers and whined."

That quote says much about the Bush gang's ethics (or lack thereof). This time around, the Bush campaign is savvy enough not to brag in such a fashion. But the methodology is mostly the same. First, let others mount the dirtiest assaults – even if untrue. Then, say nothing to disrupt these attacks, Finally, reap the rewards. The Bush crowd's response to the Swift Vets' campaign is hardly surprising. And it is hardly honorable.

This article first appeared on David Corn's web site, davidcorn.com.

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