The Swift Boat Veteran
Ad: Tallying Up the Score
The anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans For Truth
have not merely created a campaign stir with their attacks on Senator Kerry;
they have also set off one of those periodic ethical chain reactions in
which multiple parties are tested, exposed, and revealed. When we last visited
this situation, Ethics Scoreboard took the position that attacks on the
Senator's record of heroism was inherently unfair, coming as it has decades
after the events in question and under circumstances in which a final resolution
is impossible, making the only objective to harm Kerry's reputation by gratuitously
contradicting both his crew members and the official records of the United
States government. That is the position here still. But the stew has, as
Julia Childs used to say, thickened. Here's the updated scoreboard:
- Once the accusations of the group began drawing blood and attracting
media attention, Kerry's campaign began crying "Foul!"
the ads were "false and dishonest," and the Bush campaign had an obligation
to condemn and reject them. We agree that the Bush campaign should unequivocally
state that Kerry's heroism in the Viet Nam war is not at issue, and
that the president deplores and rejects the attacks on his opponent's
military record. But Kerry's campaign and the Democrats have set some
kind of record for cheek by making such a complaint. After all, they
have been happy to stand by and accept the benefits of nasty anti-Bush
attack ads from the likes of Move-on.org, not to mention tacitly endorsing
Michael Moore's epically deceitful and mean spirited Fahrenheit
9/11, a theatrical anti-Bush rant that is approximately 80 times
longer than the Swift Boat veterans' ad, and, unlike that ad, one that
circulates demonstrably false information about events that actually
have some relevance to the presidential race. Moore was treated like
a prodigal son at the Democratic convention, and despite scurrilous
accusations against the President in the film ranging from cretinism
to cowardice to criminal activity and treason, no prominent Democrat,
certainly not John Kerry, has condemned his work.
Does this change the wrongness of the anti-Kerry war record TV spot?
No. It does mean that that the Kerry campaign wants the other side
to adhere to principles that it refuses to follow itself when the
rewards are great enough, and one is justified in making some character
assessments from that fact. And as it criticized the Bush campaign
for not disavowing what it said was a deceptive ad with Republican
ties, the Kerry campaign put out a deceptive ad of its own stating
that the Bush campaign "supported" the Swift Boat group's message.
The word is intentionally misleading (the Kerry campaign has learned
something from Mr. Moore) in that it implies direct support such as
funds or endorsement. As the Washington Post noted in analyzing the
ad, that is not the case. The word really means, in this context,
that Bush has "supported" the ad by failing to condemn it…not what
most viewers will understand "support" to convey, and thus intentionally
misleading. The Kerry ad is deceitful, and thus unethical.
- The Kerry campaign has also attempted to pressure
book stores not to carry the new book Unfit for Command, which
casts Kerry's Viet Nam activities in an unflattering light. As related
in the on-line magazine Salon, Kerry aides have suggested that
the book's publisher should reject it as a hoax. "No publisher should
want to be selling books with proven falsehoods in them, especially
falsehoods that are meant to smear the military service of an American
veteran," Kerry campaign spokesman Chad Clanton is quoted as saying.
"If I were them, I'd be ducking under my desk wondering what to do.
This is a serious problem." Meanwhile, a liberal organization called
Media Matters for America has written to retailers demanding that the
book be taken off the shelves. This may well establish a new low for
supposedly liberal organizations: attempting to stifle adversarial literature
through prior restraint. The purveyors of the effort have compared Unfit
for Command with the "Hitler Diaries," a proven forgery that was
pulled from circulation as a fraud on the public. It is a dishonest
comparison, and they know it is a dishonest comparison. For one thing,
several contentions in the book are true, such as the undisputed (and
certifiably creepy) fact that Kerry filmed his own mini-documentary
re-enacting some of his heroic exploits. Others raise legitimate questions,
such as those surrounding Kerry's mysterious trip or trips or non-trips
over the Cambodian border. With books on the shelves linking the Bushes
to secret conspiracies and ancient organizations bent on world domination,
depicting Hillary Clinton as a power-mad virago dedicated to turning
the US into a socialist paradise, and celebrating the charm and genius
of Donald Trump, not to mention those that document abductions by aliens
and lively conversations with the dead, the attempt to prevent Americans
from reading this book and making up their own minds about its validity
is as absurd and insulting as it is indefensible.
- President Bush,, meanwhile, has been speaking in
code, stating that it regards Kerry's war service as "noble" while using
the Swift Boat vets ad as an excuse to deplore all the so called "527"
group ads that have successfully exploited loopholes in the McCain-Feingold
election reform law. That he would be uncharitable toward the "527"
groups is understandable, given that many of their ads aimed at him
are pretty vicious. But his carefully chosen words and his sly smile
make it clear that he is perfectly happy to let the Swift Boat Bashers
make life miserable for Senator Kerry, and therefore won't specifically
condemn them. This is not the high road. If Bush believes the ad is
a smear, he should say so; if he endorses their attacks, then he should
jump on board.
- Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards has also
weighed in, calling the claims in the ad "lies." But he can't say that:
Edwards himself has no idea whether the claims are true or not. This
is the problem with having a trial lawyer in the race. His "client",
Kerry, says they are lies, and Edwards is speaking for him as he has
spoken for thousands of clients over the years. But the national stage
isn't a courtroom. It is unethical for Edwards to make an assertion,
especially one that reflects on the veterans' character, when he has
no direct knowledge to support it.
- Then there is former Senator, Presidential also-ran and Viagra pitchman
Bob Dole, who recently opined that there must be some
substance to the anti-Kerry allegations. No, Bob, there doesn't have
to be any truth in them at all. The bare fact of an accusation
proves nothing. That's what's wrong with all of this: in the end, it
comes down to an attempt to destroy a reputation with accusations alone.
Joe McCarthy would have been proud.
- The national news media's coverage of the issue should
be upsetting to those remarkable souls who can still maintain with a
straight face that there is no anti-Bush tilt to the campaign coverage.
The contrast between the tone of the respectful coverage of the pro-Kerry
"527" ads implying that Bush skipped his national guard duty (a claim
that has never been supported by any live witnesses at all) and the
sneering attitude toward the charges by the Swift Boat Veterans for
Truth could hardly be more striking, or less excusable. Several publications
that should know better (such as Newsweek) have simply declared the
anti-Kerry accusations to be "lies," a contention that is so far unproven
and quite possibly unprovable. And the magazine doesn't even have the
excuse of being a trial lawyer…
- Let's not forget the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth
as we review this parade of the unethical. Their latest ad, documenting
Kerry's inflammatory statements before Congress about "war crimes" he
said were routinely committed by US soldiers in Viet Nam, shows their
true motive: vengeance. They are angry at Kerry, whom they feel unfairly
impugned their character while undermining the US war effort, and this
is their well-timed payback. Ironically, the latest ad is as justifiable
as their first ad is unfair: the public has a right to know that Kerry's
post-military service fame was built on his public repudiation of the
very same Viet Nam activities that he celebrates now, that many of his
claims at the time were exaggerated or later proven to be untrue, and
that they were profoundly hurtful to many servicemen. But their anger,
as understandable as it may be, undermines their credulity as they dispute
Kerry's heroism. Over and over again, spokesmen for the group have denied
that the attacks are "personal." This is an obvious lie. It is a vendetta,
whether their accounts debunking his heroism have validity or not.
So there we have it: one more instance in which all participants in a
political controversy have thrown ethical principles to the wind. There
are no winners in sight, and the losers, Dear Reader, are you and I.
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