Monday, August 23, 2004

Bush...tearing down another war hero

Quote of the day:

If the tactic works, none of the men and women now fighting in Iraq can trust that the medals they earn won't someday be used against them.

Bush re-election machine busy tearing down another war hero
Columbus Dispatch (Subscription required)
Sunday, August 22, 2004


If John Kerry wins the Democratic nomination, I mused on Jan. 17, President Bush will do back flips to avoid comparisons of their respective military records.

On a stage in Des Moines, Iowa, that night, I watched a retired policeman embrace the Massachusetts senator, creating the most poignant moment of the Democratic campaign for president.

Jim Rassmann had come from Oregon to tell the world that 35 years earlier, then-Navy Lt. Kerry, wounded, turned his swift boat around against enemy fire and fished Rassmann out of the Bay Hap River in Vietnam.

``He could have been shot and killed," said a teary Rassmann, a Republican. ``I figure I owe this man my life."

Kerry was given a Bronze Star for that heroic act. He also got a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam.

Score one for Kerry, I thought, standing amid the cheering Iowa Democrats. With questions lingering about Bush's stateside service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, military records weren't likely to top Bush's discussion agenda during the campaign.

And it didn't help that influential hawks in his administration -- Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Department Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz -- found ways to avoid military service during the war.

But then, I had forgotten some recent history and once again underestimated just how good Karl Rove & Co. are at winning elections.

As Bush scores with voters by lauding the heroism of troops he sends to war, his allies systematically tear down old war heroes for political gain.

In 2002, Republicans painted Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, as unpatriotic. Nevermind that Cleland lost two legs and his right arm in the Vietnam War. Cleland's GOP opponent, Saxby Chambliss, ran a television ad showing Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Cleland, contending that Cleland ``voted against the President's vital homeland security efforts 11 times." Chambliss won.

Two years earlier, in the bitter 2000 South Carolina presidential primary, Bush supporters sponsored a rumor campaign against Sen. John McCain of Arizona, suggesting he was loony from five years of torture in Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps.

A couple of weeks ago, McCain saw a 60-second TV spot sponsored by a group called ``Swift Boat Veterans for Truth." The ad, financed by Texas Republicans and aired in Ohio and two other battleground states, said Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star. Livid, McCain referred to Bush backers and said, ``It was the same kind of deal that was pulled on me." He called on the Bush campaign to repudiate the ad; it declined.

Voters in key states now are debating whether Kerry really earned his Vietnam War medals. Exhaustive reporting by the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and other newspapers has discredited most statements made by the ``Swift Boat Veterans for Truth." But Bush's ubiquitous AM talk-radio surrogates loyally and doggedly fan the fire.

At the Veterans of Foreign Wars annual convention last week in Cincinnati, vets were buzzing about Kerry's war record. It was clear that Bush backers were successfully doing to Kerry what they tried to do to Cleland and McCain: sully the honor of war heroes.

With practiced discipline, Bush allies adroitly had shifted the discussion away from Bush's lack of a war record to whether Kerry's is bogus.

Realizing he was being hurt, Kerry fired back Thursday, accusing Bush of using front groups ``to do his dirty work." Kerry said if Bush wants to ``have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: `Bring it on.' "

At the VFW convention, Peter Rebold, 61, a Cincinnati lawyer who had led U.S. and South Vietnamese troops into battle as an Army captain, said the effort to smear Kerry won't work.

``All you have to look at is one thing: Kerry was in Vietnam. Bush wasn't there. Cheney wasn't there. Kerry volunteered."

Kerry's postwar protest activities and his Senate voting record on defense issues are fair game for critics. But twisting his valorous war record for political purposes is shameful.

If the tactic works, none of the men and women now fighting in Iraq can trust that the medals they earn won't someday be used against them.

Joe Hallett is senior editor at The Dispatch.