Every election cycle, it seems, brings new evidence that politics is an ignoble profession not worthy of the average citizens active participation. This years voter turnoff is breathtaking in its audacity and downright cruelty. John Kerry, a man who volunteered for a war he could have evadedas so many young men did, including the last two presidentshas found himself tarred as a virtual traitor and a fake war hero. And those who have tried to smear Kerry have direct ties to a White House populated with men who found a way to avoid service in Vietnam.
This gross campaign of character assassination, financed and coordinated by friends and allies of President Bush, is so offensive that many would-be voters might be inclined to throw up their hands, shake their heads in disgust and stay home on Election Day.
And that is precisely the intended reaction. In the cold, cynical world of political consultants, these tactics are known as voter suppression. They are designed to provoke such disgust among marginal votersthat is, voters whose allegiance cannot be predictedthat they will simply stay home rather than soil themselves with a tainted process.
Political consultants prefer small turnouts to large ones. The smaller the turnout, the easier it is to control the result. Small turnouts mean that only true believers are going to the polls. Large turnouts bring in all sorts of variables that scare the professional political consultant and often foil plans for a controlled, predictable result.
It is in President Bushs interest to suppress the votes of Americans who might be inclined to vote for John Kerry, or whose votes simply cannot be predicted. By slandering Kerry, the presidents allies are not trying to move votes from the Democratic to the Republican column. They are trying to keep would-be Kerry voters at home.
Taking their cue from a group of Vietnam veterans financed by a Texas ally of the president, right-wing talk show hosts told audiences that John Kerry was a fraud who did not deserve his three Purple Hearts, his Silver Star and his Bronze Star. I had the misfortune of tuning into one show in which the host responded to a caller who spoke highly of Kerrys courage under fire by challenging the very idea that the Democrat had actually been shot at. Was he shot at? the host said. I dont know that.
For a moment, I entertained the fantasy that this discussion actually was focused on George W. Bushs uneventful stint in the Texas Air National Guard. But no; the conversation, if you can call it that, was about John Kerrys time in Vietnam. Was he shot at? Well, we just dont know for sure, do we? He could be making the whole thing up! Do we know if he really carries shrapnel in his body, as he says? Has anybody seen the X-rays? And what about that so-called Silver Star and alleged Bronze Star? Are we really supposed to believe that a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts actually put his life in danger for the sake of others? Please!
It is astonishing that a man who served his country in wartime would be subjected to these vile slanders. It is enraging that those who slander Kerry are doing so in the service of men who made sure they never heard a shot fired in anger during the Vietnam yearsmen like the vice president, who once explained his lack of service by saying he had other priorities as a young adult. Dont we all.
After weeks of horrible invective directed at Kerry, President Bush finally spoke up and said that his opponent had served honorably and had not lied about his service. It seemed as if the president were taking the high road, but in fact, the damage had been done. Polls showed that Kerry lost ground during the smear campaign.
John Kerry is not the first politician on the wrong end of a libel, nor, regrettably, will he be the last. In 1992 some left-wingers in the media raised questions about George H. W. Bushs record during World War II, suggesting that perhaps he was not the hero pilot he claimed to be. That, too, was false. And Democrats won no points for civility in their campaign to block Robert Bork from becoming a Supreme Court justice during the Reagan years.
But it is hard not to notice that George W. Bush has had to battle two legitimate war heroesJohn McCain in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004and both have been smeared. It is hard not to conclude that some people attached to the Bush administration define real patriotism as loyalty to the ruling family, not as devotion to country and certainly not to conscience.
The strident tone of todays talk-show politics has help set the stage for campaigns like that directed against Kerry. The Vietnam veterans who accused Kerry of faking his wounds and exaggerating his battlefield exploits knew that the news channels would devour this story because it provided a distraction from substance, which so often makes for boring television. The producers and anchors who facilitated these smears deserve as much blame as a White House that refused to call off the dogs until they had done their odious work.
I do not expect many readers to feel sorry for John Kerry, and I know that many have profound differences with him on life issues. But I find it hard to believe that even the senators critics approve of personal attacks on the record of a man who served his country with valor during a time of war.