Topic: Government & Politics

The Swift Boat Veteran Ad: Tallying Up the Score
(8/25/2004)

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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