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Sex, lies, and Republicans (continued)

IT WOULD be one thing if this garbage were circulating only among right-wing crazies. But it’s not. Instead, it’s helping to fertilize mainstream loathing of those who opposed the Vietnam War, loathing that still animates some conservatives. Recently the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece by a Vietnam veteran named Stephen Sherman under the provocative headline CONDUCT UNBECOMING. Among other things, Sherman attempted to draw an analogy between Kerry’s efforts to strike middle ground between radical and moderate anti-war activists more than 30 years ago and his straddling on the war in Iraq. (Said straddling isn’t pretty, but come on.)

Another Vietnam veteran, Terry Garlock, went a few steps further in a recent guest column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Garlock wrote about "the dark side of Kerry’s war record," and asserted that he "broke faith with his brothers when he returned to the United States" by — among other things — consorting with (that woman again) Jane Fonda. "Many of us wonder which of our brothers who died young would be alive today had people like Fonda and Kerry objected to the war in a more suitable way," wrote Garlock, failing to specify what would have been "suitable" in his eyes.

The most mind-blowingly offensive attack was aimed not at Kerry himself but, rather, at one of his most visible supporters, former Georgia senator Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. The Republicans have previously shown that they’re not shy about attacking Cleland — after all, they actually turned him out of office in 2002 by impugning his patriotism. Still, Republican attack dog Ann Coulter hit a new low.

In her syndicated column last week, Coulter defended Bush’s National Guard stint by charging that Cleland wasn’t really a hero; he lost his limbs by stupidly picking up a hand grenade just as he and his buddies were about to head off for some brewskies. She wrote: "Cleland lost three limbs in an accident during a routine noncombat mission where he was about to drink beer with friends. He saw a grenade on the ground and picked it up. He could have done that at Fort Dix. In fact, Cleland could have dropped a grenade on his foot as a National Guardsman — or what Cleland sneeringly calls ‘weekend warriors.’ Luckily for Cleland’s political career and current pomposity about Bush, he happened to do it while in Vietnam."

Over the weekend, syndicated columnist Mark Steyn amplified Coulter’s trash. Pardon the long quote, but this is so hateful and vicious that it deserves to be read in full: "It’s impossible for most of us to imagine what that must be like — to be flown home, with your body shattered, not because of some firefight, but because you made a stupid mistake. Once upon a time, Cleland loathed the Silver and Bronze Stars he’d been given: He was, in his words, ‘no hero’ — which is true. He was a beneficiary of the medal inflation that tends to accompany unpopular wars. But Cleland learned to stop hating himself to the point where he’s happy to be passed off as a hero wounded in battle because that makes him a more valuable mascot to the campaign. Sad."

Let’s be clear. Serving in the military is dangerous. Serving in a war zone — as Vietnam obviously was — is even more dangerous. If Cleland had been injured in an accident while on a training mission, he would still deserve every accolade he has received. But Coulter and Steyn don’t even have their facts straight. As the Center for American Progress pointed out on its Web site (referring to a 1999 Esquire profile), "Cleland lost two legs and an arm in Vietnam when a grenade accidentally detonated after he and another soldier jumped off a helicopter in a combat zone." Moreover, four days earlier, Cleland won a Silver Star for administering first aid to a wounded soldier while under "heavy enemy rocket and mortar attack."

Perhaps it’s not surprising, given their record, that the Republicans and their allies would go after Kerry by making fun of a triple-amputee war hero. But it is surprising that they’d do it this early in the campaign. One can only imagine what’s coming after Labor Day.

LAST THURSDAY — the same day that Drudge floated the false sex story, and that Ed Gillespie complained about those nasty Democratic attacks — the Bush-Cheney campaign posted on its Web site a commercial about John Kerry’s ties to special interests. The commercial links Kerry’s standard stump-speech rhetoric about lobbyists — "We’re coming, you’re going ..." — with a recent report by the Center for Responsive Politics that Kerry has received more contributions from lobbyists than any senator over the past 15 years. "Unprincipled?" the commercial asks. The title is a rather more definitive "Unprincipled, Chapter 1."

Kerry’s reliance on special-interest money is a legitimate issue, of course, and it’s something he should expect to be asked tough questions about. Yet, as is nearly always the case with the Republican Attack Machine, the focus on Kerry is selective at best. The female narrator ominously notes that Kerry took $640,000 from lobbyists during that 15-year period. What she fails to point out is what the Center for Responsive Politics has reported about the Bush-Cheney campaign. Of the nearly $132 million it has raised so far for the 2004 campaign alone, more than $2 million comes from political-action committees — the very definition of special-interest politics. Nearly $1.4 million comes from business-related PACs, which are no doubt extremely grateful for Bush’s billions of dollars in tax cuts for rich people and corporations. Kerry, if you hadn’t heard, doesn’t take PAC money, and never has.

In other words, Kerry’s reliance on lobbyist donations could have been a good issue for Howard Dean. But for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney? Laughable, appalling, and the height of hypocrisy, all at the same time.

But it’s in keeping with how the Republicans operate. It took four years for the Democrats finally to make an issue out of Bush’s unorthodox service in the Texas Air National Guard, and now that they are, the Republicans are acting like Bush has been falsely accused of treason. (Yes, I suppose that’s pretty much what Michael Moore did, but he’s been roundly criticized for that.) When it comes to Kerry, though, anything goes. Put him in bed with an intern, place words in his mouth (or, to be more accurate, take words out of his mouth), wrap Jane Fonda’s arms around him, poke fun at Max Cleland — when is it going to stop?

It isn’t. Get used to it. And hope that Kerry lives up to his well-deserved reputation for fighting back.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: February 20 - 26, 2004
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