Attacks leave Bush, Kerry exposed

The Swift Boat Controversy

August 26, 2004|By David Gergen

IN AMERICAN presidential campaigns, an exploding controversy often opens a window into the political soul of each of the candidates -- and so it has in the case of the Swift boat controversy over Vietnam.

Sen. John Kerry put his service record forcefully into play at the Democratic National Convention in Boston as he surrounded himself with his war buddies and proclaimed with a salute that he was "reporting for duty." From his days on the Mekong Delta, however, he should have known that sappers would soon be swimming toward him, trying to knock a hole in his boat. After all, Team Bush has a long record of taking out their opponents with below-the-waterline attacks: Ask Ann Richards, John McCain and Max Cleland -- all of whom were sunk.

Mr. Kerry should have known as well that he could not depend upon the news media to shield him. Major newspapers have investigated many of the allegations against him and found them false. A quarter-century ago, they would have faded away without much discussion. But in an age of slang-fests on radio and cable news, it was inevitable that conservative hosts would blow up the story. Bill O'Reilly is one of the only exceptions, taking the honorable view that attacks on soldiers' service records should remain out of bounds.

But Mr. Kerry should have seen what was coming and been ready for it. That he was not has allowed the other side -- with a president who avoided Vietnam and a vice president who sought five deferments -- to gain an upper hand on a candidate who heroically volunteered and won five medals. Incredible. Obviously, that should never have happened, and it reveals a candidate whose team and whose own instincts are not as sharp as they should be.

Mr. Kerry has started to fight back, as he should, but he needs to do more to drive home to voters how scurrilous the attacks have been so that doubts won't linger through the fall. How well he defends himself against personal attacks will soon become a test of how well he would defend the country against terrorist attacks. That's why it is so important that he turn the tables. He has a long record in Massachusetts of letting his rivals get out in front early in a campaign and then clawing back to victory; now, as he runs for commander in chief, he must prove he can do it in a national campaign.

The Swift boat controversy also shows more starkly than ever a side of Mr. Bush that people don't talk about much: that behind his mild exterior, he has an instinct for the jugular and will put the other fellow to the knife if that's what it takes. To be sure, he is not directly responsible for the Swift boat ads, nor is there any evidence that anyone on his staff was. Mr. Bush himself has also been subjected to an avalanche of negative ads from Kerry supporters, some of them scandalous. There is an element here of Republicans getting even.

Even so, Team Bush has now built a record of being closely tied to smears. Only two months ago, they were extolling the memory of Ronald Reagan and portraying Mr. Bush as his political heir. Let's be clear: Mr. Reagan never played the game this way. His sunny disposition and sense of fairness never would have permitted the defaming of another man's military heroism.

This kind of politics smacks more of the dirty tricks we saw under Richard M. Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson. It is not coincidental that one of the key players now attacking Mr. Kerry, John O'Neill, was originally recruited for the same purpose by the Nixon dirty tricks team some three decades ago.

Some voters, especially men, will privately welcome a commander in chief who plays rough with his opponents. Mr. Nixon's meanness, it was said, provided an extra measure of safety against the Russians. Maybe, some will think it's a good thing for terrorists to see that Team Bush rolls over anyone who stands in its way, whether Saddam Hussein or Mr. Kerry.

But there are distinct and pressing dangers here for Mr. Bush. Remember that in Iraq, he gained the upper hand at first, but the brash, overreaching way he went to war has come back to haunt him in the long run.

Similarly, if Mr. Kerry now persuades voters that the Swift boat ads were below the belt, the gains Mr. Bush has made in the short term could vanish. Voters may conclude that as tough as he is, Mr. Bush can also be reckless, and they would rather have a safe, prudent hand at the wheel.

The Swift boat controversy has thus opened a window on each candidate; how they shape the story over the coming days could make a big difference to voters deciding who would be a better commander in chief.

David Gergen, an adviser to four presidents, is a professor and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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