Choosing a president by letting the mud fly

August 15, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

OLD TOMMY D'Alesandro, who understood politics pretty well, had a few sayings about political behavior.

"He who throws mud," warned the former mayor of Baltimore, "loses ground."

But is the wisdom of Old Tommy dated? Many in the world of winning and losing elections would say yes. Mudslinging wins elections. How else do you explain why backers of President Bush, who did not serve in Vietnam, are busily hurling wet dirt at John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran?

It reminds me of what my daughter's wise and witty college roommate used to say: "You don't have to be perfect to ridicule others."

The Kerry camp tries to ignore the issue, trusting that its supporters will make its case. The Bush campaign denies any connection to the independent expenditure attack, which now includes a book, a fair amount of cash and some fairly high-profile Texas supporters.

On the pro-Bush side of the punditocracy, conservative writers and talk show hosts pick up the charges and rebroadcast them as gospel. "A lie," it is said, "is halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on."

Many, if not all, the attackers were not in the vicinity when Mr. Kerry's medals were won. This does not prevent them from saying his heroic war record is a fiction. They might as well be saying Mr. Kerry's lifesaving exploit happened in tranquil waters off the coast of Club Med; or that his three Purple Hearts were awarded for hangnails as part of a grand left-wing conspiracy which involved the entire U.S. Navy, and so on.

Even in the debunking, if that were entirely possible, the scurrilous charges get new life. That's one reason untruth is so fleet-footed: It gets fuel from both sides of the equation.

In a conspiracy of this sort, everything fits into the picture: John Kerry went to Vietnam because he wanted to be president. He took his own movie camera. He shot a man who was running from him. Never mind that many harmless-looking people turned out to have malevolent intent and potential.

And another thing: Mr. Kerry's high road approach -- his call for an end to personal attacks -- is nothing more than an effort to inoculate himself, an effort to make the opposition look mean-spirited, desperate and despicable. One of the men who signed the anti-Kerry campaign has now inconveniently recanted, calling ita mistake.

Sen. John McCain, a Republican who spent years in Viet Cong prisons, says the assault is shameful. He's asked President Bush to condemn it. So far, the Bush camp remains more or less silent. So, don't look for the anti-Kerry ads to be pulled. There's free speech to consider. There's profit-making to consider. At least one of the ad backers is still angry with Mr. Kerry for becoming an anti-war advocate after Vietnam, so there's that to consider.

Most of all, there's the prospect of success to consider. One political strategist I knew years ago wryly referred to campaigns of this sort as "contrastive," a formulation cannily designed to sanitize the mud. Ads of this sort are merely offering the voter an opportunity to contrast one candidate against another. That sort of campaigning is perfectly legitimate and healthy -- if that's what it is. Or, perhaps, all's fair in love, war and politics.

You could ask former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. He was attacked for his decision to oppose a homeland security act, though he favored another that was quite similar. That ad suggested he was in league with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. His opponent, Saxby Chambliss, won.

So, Old Tommy might have a different view of things today. In the larger scheme of things, his view would not change. Lowlife politics results in losing ground for your soul. But the calculation is that you gain more support than you lose.

Nevertheless, the Cleland campaign may have been mud's last hurrah. Remember that Mr. Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, had considerable success this year appealing to the voters' better instincts. The pros and the cynics might shrug. And John Kerry still has to make his case. But crowds at Kerry rallies are impressively large. Maybe he's gaining ground.

C. Fraser Smith is news director at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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