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Sex, lies, and Republicans
Drudge shoots and misses. But Bush’s allies are attacking Kerry with everything from a phony Jane Fonda photo to a sickening attack on triple amputee Max Cleland.

JUST IN CASE you were wondering, they really are from another planet. Evidence: a February 12 speech delivered by Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie, in which he warned of the attacks he anticipates from John Kerry and his allies. "It’s only February," Gillespie said (at least that much was true), "and they have made clear they intend to run the dirtiest campaign in modern presidential politics. This is because they don’t want a debate on the issues, and they don’t want to run on Senator Kerry’s record. I guess I can’t blame them for that. We as a party cannot sink to their level. We must stick to truth in this race."

Gillespie made his remarks on Thursday — the same day Matt Drudge floated a rumor on his Web site, the Drudge Report, that news organizations were investigating rumors of an extramarital affair involving Senator John Kerry and a young woman. Now, granted, Drudge, despite the infamy he enjoys for nudging the Monica Lewinsky scandal into the open, isn’t a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. But Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh certainly are. Drudge was interviewed on Hannity’s radio show later that day, and Hannity gushed and oozed that Drudge, once again, had shown up the liberal media. Limbaugh festooned his Web site, RushLimbaugh.com, with a graphic of an on-the-make "John F’ing Kerry" dressed like a pimp from a 1970s blaxploitation movie. On Friday, Kerry was forced to deny the rumors — whatever they were — on Don Imus’s syndicated radio show, as well as at several stops along the campaign trail.

By Monday, it had all fallen apart. The woman, now 27, stepped forward and denied it. Her parents, who had been quoted by the London Sun (home of the semi-nude "Page 3 Girl") as calling Kerry a "sleazeball," said they actually intend to vote for Kerry. And Limbaugh — unbelievably, incredibly — said this: "All right, now, let’s watch now, my friends, the media will report this young lady’s statement with headlines, breaking news, all kinds of bells and whistles, yet it ignored almost completely the information leading to the issuance of this statement. The media will accept this statement at face value, and they will move on. The fact that AP has now run this statement and did nothing or next to nothing with the original story shows how the media spins for liberals."

As a media story, the short-lived Kerry non-sex non-scandal wasn’t much. The British and Australian press had a field day with it, as did American talk radio and the Internet. The mainstream US media stayed as far away from it as they could. So score one for the Establishment. It acted responsibly, and thus avoided major embarrassment. Perhaps a few editors remembered that Drudge had nearly gone down in a sea of lawyers’ bills a few years ago after publishing the lie that then–Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal had beaten his wife.

As a political tactic, though, the Kerry story was emblematic. At a moment when George W. Bush was hunkered down over everything from his phony budget numbers (which enraged conservatives in his own party as well as Democrats), to the bloody quagmire in Iraq (still no weapons of mass destruction, by the way), to questions about his service or lack thereof in the Texas Air National Guard, Drudge’s casually flung allegation managed to put Kerry on the defensive. Though there is as yet no evidence that Drudge’s informant or informants were Republicans (indeed, it appears that the rumor either originated with or was spread by the now-expired Wesley Clark campaign), the eagerness of bought-and-paid-for Republican partisans such as Hannity and Limbaugh to spread this sleaze demonstrates that the Republican Attack Machine continues to operate on a hair trigger. And the sex rumors may have had an effect: Kerry won the Wisconsin primary on Tuesday, but his margin over North Carolina senator John Edwards was an unexpectedly close six points. Maybe someone should do an exit poll to see how many of those voters are devotees of Drudge, Limbaugh, or Hannity. Since Wisconsin allows Republicans and independents to vote in the Democratic primary, the likely answer is "a lot."

The sex story was just the most sensational example of the attacks the Republicans and their allies are launching against the Kerry campaign. It wasn’t the only attack. And it certainly won’t be the last.

IF THERE’S ANYTHING the Republicans are terrified of, it’s Kerry’s record as a Vietnam War hero. Thus it’s not surprising that some of the most demented attacks involve Kerry’s involvement in the anti-war movement after he returned home from Vietnam.

Recently, for instance, two ultraconservative publications, National Review and the Washington Times, ripped into Kerry for allegedly accusing his fellow veterans of atrocities during his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. But as the New Republic points out in its current issue, those attacks on Kerry relied on a highly creative use of ellipses. Here’s how National Review — on a recent cover that was ominously labeled THE SENATOR’S OTHER VIETNAM WAR RECORD — rendered Kerry’s testimony: "American soldiers ‘raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, ... cut off limbs, ... randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside ..." The Washington Times pulled pretty much the identical trick.

Trouble is, Kerry was accurately quoting American soldiers who had participated in the Winter Soldier Investigation, a project of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, of which Kerry was a co-founder. Here is the fuller quote: "They told stories that [emphasis added] at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war."

National Review, at least, got it right in the article inside, but only after whipping up hatred against Kerry on its cover. The Washington Times not only failed to meet that minimal standard, but wrote of the "slander of the GIs he left behind in Vietnam," thus offering a false interpretation of its own phonied-up quote.

Then there is the matter of the Jane Fonda photos. A few shadowy right-wing activists are distributing two photos of Kerry and Fonda at anti-war rallies in the early 1970s; they are popping up across the Internet on various right-wing Web sites. Fonda, after all these years, is still derided in some circles as "Hanoi Jane," and the idea of Kerry and Fonda having once been in proximity to each other is enough to excite and disturb. One of these photos, of Kerry seated several rows behind and to the right of Fonda, is real. The other, of Kerry and Fonda actually sharing a podium, is a fake.

Last week, the New York Times went so far as to mention the fake photo without noting that it had long since been discredited, which brought howls of outrage (and laughter) from weblogs such as Atrios and Al Giordano’s Big, Left, Outside. The fake was traced to Ted Semple, an ex–Green Beret and far-right activist who was immediately denounced by Senator John McCain, a Republican and, like Kerry, a Vietnam War hero. (Both Kerry and McCain have been targeted by Semple for heading an investigation a decade ago that concluded there are no American prisoners of war living in Southeast Asia.) But even the real photo has the wingnuts buzzing. The right-wing Web site NewsMax.com called it "the photo the Dems fear most."

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Issue Date: February 20 - 26, 2004
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