The low road

August 08, 2004

FROM A TACTICAL standpoint, it makes some sense for backers of President Bush to run campaign ads questioning the military heroism of Democratic challenger John Kerry.

The comfort level Americans feel with Mr. Bush as their commander in chief is currently his greatest advantage over Senator Kerry in the presidential campaign. President Bush can't afford to let Mr. Kerry succeed in his drive to use his decorated wartime service to neutralize that advantage.

Even if the claims of the anti-Kerry veterans featured in one ad are "dishonest and dishonorable," as Republican Sen. John McCain charged, they raise questions that inevitably make the challenger's job of winning voter confidence more difficult.

But mud-slinging of this nature smacks of a desperation move that suggests the president fears he can't win any other way. It could also inspire a nasty backlash that spatters Mr. Bush with charges about his own Vietnam-era military service -- or lack thereof.

The ads attacking Mr. Kerry are not sponsored directly by the Bush campaign, of course, but by an independent group calling itself "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," which includes men who served in Vietnam at the same time as Mr. Kerry but not on the same boat. The advertising campaign is reportedly financed in large measure by a Houston home-builder who is a major Republican donor.

Essentially, the group challenges accounts of the men who served under Mr. Kerry's command about the heroic deeds that earned him a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Central points of dispute deal with whether Mr. Kerry's boat was under attack when he rescued a man who had been knocked overboard and whether a Viet Cong soldier Mr. Kerry shot was fleeing or preparing to turn and fire the rocket launcher he was carrying.

But at the core of the conflict seems to be a three-decade-old grudge against the senator by veterans such as John O'Neill, one of those in the ad, because of Mr. Kerry's post-service role leading anti-war protests.

And the credibility of the anti-Kerry attack was undermined Friday when The Boston Globe, which has exhaustively investigated the topic, reported that one of the key figures featured in the ad retracted the statement that supports a central allegation. Mr. Kerry's former commanding officer, George Elliot, told the Globe he made a "terrible mistake" in signing an affidavit swearing that Mr. Kerry "lied about what occurred in Vietnam" and that the senator didn't deserve a Silver Star because "he simply shot a wounded, fleeing Viet Cong in the back."

Mr. Elliot, who was not present at the scene, told the Globe, "I still don't think he shot the guy in the back," but felt under "time pressure" to sign the affidavit.

President Bush should immediately repudiate these shameful ads and urge that they be taken off the air.

If he can't win without them, perhaps he shouldn't.

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