Kerry and the Swift Boats

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(Host) Commentator David Moats has been thinking about the Swiftboat controversy, and how the Viet Nam era echoes in today’s politics.

(Moats) I have a sneaking suspicion that this whole debate about John Kerry and his Swift boat is going to come back to haunt President Bush. How could it not?

People say the Bush campaign has allowed the attacks on Kerry’s Vietnam service to divert attention from Iraq. But attention to Kerry in Vietnam also directs attention to Bush’s record during the Vietnam War. Does he really want people thinking about that?

It is widely known that Bush used family connections to obtain a place in the National Guard and then failed to show up for part of his Guard duty. It is widely known that for Bush the Vietnam period was a time to party. Meanwhile, Kerry was getting shot up in Vietnam. If Bush wants us to think about that, then okay.

The whole Swift boat controversy underscores two things about American politics in 2004. One is the wound that still festers about Vietnam. Those veterans attacking Kerry are still angry that Kerry came back and testified against the war. Kerry had the audacity to talk about atrocities committed by American troops.

Of course, most troops did not commit atrocities. But a veteran told me that when he was serving on a Swift boat on the rivers of Vietnam, they used to blast anything on the riverbank that moved – women, children, water buffalo, it didn’t matter. I’m not going to judge him or his situation. But let’s not play innocent about the Vietnam War, which according to its own architects was built on a foundation of lies.

Second, there’s the degraded character of political debate today. Allegations about Kerry’s military service have entered the political bloodstream not because they have credibility but merely because they have been uttered. As far as I can tell, these charges have no basis in reality.

It is frequently stated that Kerry asked for scrutiny of his war record by making his Vietnam heroics into a central theme of his campaign. Fair enough. But scrutiny of his record is different than character assassination with no basis in reality.

It is significant, I think, that the man behind the Swift boat attacks was an operative of Richard Nixon’s, recruited even back then to attack the young Kerry. It is mind-boggling that Nixonian politics has extended its reach into the 21st century.

But if we’re talking about Vietnam and dirty tricks, even in 2004, I guess we can’t escape the shadow of Richard Nixon. I don’t know how to escape the spin cycle of smear and deception that allows lies to work their way from the Internet and talk radio to the cable channels, networks and newspapers.

Respectable journals are forced to talk about garbage if garbage is dominating the campaign. The facade of objectivity requires news editors sometimes to give truth and falsehood equal time, even if equal time gives credence to the falsehood.

But for now if Bush wants us to think about the time he spent avoiding Guard duty in Alabama, then so be it. Hey, I didn’t go to Vietnam either. Who am I to criticize?

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pultizer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke to us from studios at Middlebury College.

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