Kerry Fires Back

One of Sherlock Holmes' cases was "The Dog That Didn't Bark." Now that John Kerry has come out fighting, one can't help thinking that maybe it was because no one was listening.

Beginning at midnight last Thursday in Ohio, within an hour of Bush's combination of a Nuremburg rally and Ringling Brothers Circus in Madison Square Garden, Kerry went on the offensive in a way that made it relevant and avoided being trapped down in the Mekong, thousands of miles away and thirty years ago.

In a controlled but angry speech, he laid into Vice President Dick Cheney by name and Bush by implication: "I will not have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have, and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq. The Vice President called me unfit for office last night. Well, I'll leave it up to the voters to decide whether five deferments makes someone more qualified to defend this nation than two tours of duty."

He continued, "Let me tell you what I think makes someone unfit for duty. Misleading our nation into war in Iraq makes you unfit to lead this nation. Doing nothing while this nation loses millions of jobs makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting 45 million Americans go without healthcare makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting the Saudi royal family control our energy costs makes you unfit. Handing out billions of government contracts to Halliburton while you're still on their payroll makes you unfit."

It was good strong stuff – it counterattacked on Swift Boats and Cheney, and it brought the issues up to the present.

And it disappeared from sight.

It is easy to be paranoid, and in the morning, when I tried to find mention of what I had seen the night before, I began to suspect it was a hallucination, a wishful dream induced by four days of the Republican National Convention. There was little or no coverage of Kerry's statements.

In sober reflection, however, Kerry had waited far too long in what looked like an attempt to win the Job Prize for Patience in the face of attacks – and it was certainly not the Almighty who was doing the trying.

But what induced him to make such a key announcement in an isolated place (sorry Ohio!), at a midnight open air rally, with no preparation, with little or no hint to the media that it was going to happen, in the part of the news cycle that mostly sees reporters and editors tucked up in bed for the night? We can be sure that some of the stifling was political – but he gave lots of excuses for people not to cover it.

Just because I may be paranoid does not stop people from spiking stories, and stories about Bush's Vietnam War record have been spiked more often than a kebab if you compare their comparative dearth with the overdosing on Swift Boats. The difference is, in every case where a record exists, it contradicts the Swift Boat surrogates for Karl Rove.

In almost every case with Bush, his record seems to have disappeared. On Tuesday, the Associated Press filed a law suit demanding the release of a key set of documents that Bush's National Guard service should have generated, but which seem to have disappeared, or at least certainly have not appeared in those the White House has released.

Of course, these documents may have been among those that Lt. Col. Bill Burkett of the Texas Air National Guard claims saw being winnowed out in 1997 in Texas. But the military are great believers in duplication. It will be interesting if any of them turn up, like the famous missing pay records for Bush's year spent in Alabama. The interesting part is that their disappearance and reappearance became the story – not their contents, which proved again that in the year up to the beginning of May 1972, 1st Lt. George W. Bush did not do a single day of active duty.

However, it is not only documents that disappear. After several days of excitement, the promised CBS "60 Minutes" interview with former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes also seemed to have disappeared. Barnes was the speaker of the Texas House who arranged young, unqualified – and clearly undeserving – George W. Bush's rocket-assisted ride to the front of the 500-strong line to join the Texas Air National Guard.

His story has been told before, in an affidavit where he swore that a Bush family friend, not the family, had approached him to get the slot. And he had better be careful about changing it too much, because the people he is dealing with would have a perjury charge slapped on him before you could say "Karl Rove."

Bush has not told anything like the whole truth about his career, hence the AP's interest. But he has had an easy ride, and the tactics have often been to fob off inquiries or to get someone else to lie on his behalf.

This February 13 saw a classic case where Helen Thomas tried repeatedly at a White House press briefing to get an answer to the question of whether or not Bush had been sentenced to community service while in Alabama. White House spokesman Scott McClellan refused to answer, or even promise an answer, during a long and grueling session.

The White House declares that Bush has not used narcotics since 1974, leaving the question unanswered of what happened before. Kitty Kelly's forthcoming book will quote Sharon Bush, his ex-sister-in-law as saying that the intrepid National Guard pilot was smoking dope and snorting coke, even in Camp David, and Salon quotes his old friend Jimmy Allison's widow to prove that he was packed off to Alabama so his drunken ways did not intrude on Texas politics.

Now lots of people evaded Vietnam, and lots, both dodgers and draftees, used drugs in that period, so the issue is almost marginal in itself. But experience suggests that lying about that or anything else on the record may have consequences.

The success of Karl Rove's Swift Boat ads was not really what Kerry had done or not done. It was whether he lied about it. He almost certainly didn't, but as Mark Twain says "The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might," and the Bush family and its entourage have no problems in finding people to tell lies on their behalf.

If Barnes is prepared to risk a perjury charge and witness that the Bush family did indeed, as the circumstances certainly suggest, use its influence to get Bush Jr. in the Guard, then that would help no end.

But in the meantime, Kerry can call it for Bush. He can, we hope, make a cogent case for his current and relevant agenda, but there is a serious character issue to raise about Bush. He should be asking, "Why didn't you turn up for your flight medical in 1972? Why was there no investigation into 'your failure to accomplish' the medical? Did you ever respond to the orders to turn up? And where is the documentation for all this? Why does AP have to sue, when you promised to turn all your documents over?"

Of course the straight-faced White House team will lugubriously lament this intrusion of smear tactics and dirty politics. But hey, Kerry is only asking. What do they have to hide?

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