April 27, 2004 | For George W. Bush's surrogates to question John
Kerry's war record, as they have continued to do in recent days, requires
a special Republican brand of super-high-octane gall. Why would the
president want to draw additional attention to the most unflattering
contrast between him and the Democratic challenger? Why would his
flacks reopen the painful issues of that era by questioning Kerry's
undoubted heroism? If anyone ever earned the right to talk about what
he had seen in Vietnam and why no more Americans should kill or die
there, it was the young, highly decorated Navy lieutenant who had
volunteered for duty.
Perhaps Bush and his strategists believe that offense is the only
way to play defense on his spotty National Guard record. Perhaps they
think that with enough money and enough noise, they can erase Kerry's
medals and heroism. (After all, according to a recent Harris poll,
millions of Americans evidently believe that U.S. troops actually
found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so it is reasonable to
think they would believe almost anything.) And perhaps they expect
the mainstream media to assist in defacing Kerry's character -- just
as important media organizations smeared Al Gore four years ago with
Republican spin points.
Whatever plan the White House is pursuing, Karen Hughes proved last
Sunday that the highly personal attack on Kerry is coming directly
from the top. No one can doubt that Hughes speaks for Bush, sometimes
quite literally, as she did in "A Charge to Keep," the Bush "autobiography"
she ghosted for him in 1999. She claimed to be "very troubled" by
comments Kerry made in 1971 about atrocities he witnessed during the
war and urged the press to "follow up some line of inquiry" about
whether he was inventing and exaggerating those concerns -- or whether
he might even have committed war crimes himself. "I wish we knew a
little bit more about that," said the troubled Hughes, as if deeply
concerned whether Kerry tossed his ribbons or his medals over a fence
at the Pentagon during a 1971 demonstration.
Now if Hughes were honestly interested in Kerry's conduct during
the war, she could peruse the official Navy documents posted on his
Web site, which include his medal citations and sterling evaluations
by his superiors. If she is truly ignorant about the horrors perpetrated
in Vietnam's free-fire zones, she could consult the memories of prominent
veterans such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Sen. Bob
Kerrey, or the voluminous history of the My Lai investigation.
More likely Hughes was just being her disingenuous self when suggesting
Kerry's wartime behavior hadn't gotten enough scrutiny. At any rate,
she isn't in the best position to accuse Kerry or anyone else of false
pretenses. Among the press corps that covered the 2000 campaign, her
instinct to conceal and dissemble was well known. Indeed, conservative
journalist Tucker Carlson suggested last year that her willingness
to lie for Bush "almost crosses over ... into mental illness." Feigning
indigation over comments made by Kerry more than 30 years ago would
pose no challenge for Hughes.
She deserves to be challenged, however, about her own role in the
concealment of Bush's actual service record. Although she is currently
peddling her new bestseller, the most pertinent questions concern
"A Charge to Keep," that slim promotional volume with Bush's name
and likeness on the cover.
While including plenty of filler and self-serving rhetoric, Hughes
needed only five pages to recount Bush's military career -- from his
decision to apply for pilot training to the lessons he learned during
his National Guard service. The deceptions begin on Page 51, when
Bush claims that during Christmas vacation in Houston, he "heard from
contemporaries that there were openings for pilots in the Texas Air
National Guard, and I called to ask about them ... I met the qualifications
and was accepted into the Texas Air National Guard." It's a nice,
simple story, but it omits most of the facts and distorts others,
as this investigation by the Los Angeles Times explains.
The gripping but brief account of Bush's training and service ends
vaguely, with this sentence: "I continued flying with my unit for
the next several years." That's false; he quit flying after less than
two years. He and his ghostwriter don't mention that he quit flying
no later than August 1972, after he missed a flight physical and was
suspended. His disappearance into Alabama to work on a Republican
Senate race, when he was supposed to be pulling duty, is also left
On that chapter's concluding page, Bush proclaims: "I am proud of
my service. Yet I know it was nothing comparable to what our soldiers
and pilots were doing in battle in Vietnam." Having written those
words, Hughes should remember them whenever she feels the urge to
demean Kerry, who still carries a piece of shrapnel in his left buttock.
And should she open her mouth about this subject again, someone should
ask her what the president did with his medals.
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