Kerry's Quagmire
How the liberal media helped re-elect George W. Bush.

The American Spectator, July/August 2005

What were the Democrats thinking? Didn't John Kerry have "loser" written all over him? After all, he was not only a Massachusetts Democrat but Michael Dukakis's former lieutenant governor. He was as liberal as Dukakis but lacked the inspiring immigrant background: a man who married another man's fortune, from a state where a man can marry another man. He had a haughty air, and he looked French, or so some anonymous Republicans told the New York Times in 2003. Kerry replied, "The White House has started the politics of personal destruction"--proving that he was thin-skinned as well. Yet exit polls showed that Democratic primary voters backed him because he was "electable."

Of course "electable" at that point chiefly meant "not Howard Dean," whose campaign in retrospect seems more performance art than politics. But once Kerry won the nomination, he had--or seemed to have--something else going for him: the support of the liberal media, which loathed President Bush and yearned for his defeat. "The media, I think, wants Kerry to win," Evan Thomas of Newsweek said last July. "I think they're going to portray Kerry and Edwards--I'm talking about the establishment media, not Fox--but they're going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and dynamic and optimistic and all. There's going to be this glow about them . . . that's going to be worth maybe 15 points." Thomas later revised his estimate downward, to five points.

If Thomas was right, then Bush would have won re-election with a popular-vote margin of between 7.5 and 17.5 percent of the total vote--rather than the 2.5 percent he actually got--but for the liberal media. Yet there's a case to be made on the other side: that the liberal media actually helped President Bush, rendering the Kerry campaign ineffective by telling Democrats what they wanted to hear rather than what was true.

By the way, did you know that John Kerry served in Vietnam? This brief entry on his résumé--a four-month tour of duty for a (then) nearly 20-year Senate veteran--turned out to be central to the myth that the Democrats, with help from sympathetic media, tried but failed to build around Kerry.

To hear them tell it, Kerry's Vietnam stint was one of the best-kept secrets in American politics. "The U.S. senator from Massachusetts said few voters in neighboring New Hampshire even know he's a military veteran," the Eagle-Tribune of Andover, Massachusetts, reported in October 2003, three months before the Granite State primary. "It is stunning," Kerry told the paper's editors. "That's the one thing you'd think the voters would know about me. Especially in New Hampshire. You can't take anything for granted. You have to tell people about yourself again and again."

Perhaps Kerry was traumatized in 'Nam and finds his experience there difficult to talk about. If so, it was a difficulty he managed to overcome. In July, he arrived at Boston's FleetCenter to accept his party's nomination for president of the United States. Before reading his prepared speech, he saluted and declared that he was "reporting for duty."

The media helped the Kerry campaign get out its "war hero" message. "If the Republicans had any hope of casting Kerry as some Michael Dukakis-style effete Eastern liberal, that's over," declared CNN's Bruce Morton on January 30, three days after Kerry's New Hampshire victory made him the all-but-certain nominee. "The band of brothers stands in its way."

The tone hadn't changed six months later, when CBS's Byron Pitts filed the following report in advance of Kerry's convention appearance: "The day before his speech, Kerry crossed Boston Harbor with some of his crewmates from Vietnam. His band of brothers. They have one battle left. But tonight the loner will stand alone here in his hometown one more time and look to do what John F. Kerry has nearly always done--find a way to win."

The Kerry campaign's narrative contrasted its man with Bush, whom it portrayed as a slacker who avoided Vietnam by using political connections to secure a spot in the Texas Air National Guard. Again, the media played along. In a July 22 interview on the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather asked Kerry: "Speaking of angry, have you ever had any anger about President Bush--who spent his time during the Vietnam War in the National Guard--running, in effect, a campaign that does its best to diminish your service in Vietnam? You have to be at least irritated by that, or have you been?"

"Yup, I have been," replied Kerry. Rather, it seemed, had stumbled on a way to get a straight answer out of the notoriously nuanced nominee. (A tip of the hat to the Media Research Center for the quotes from Morton, Pitts, and Rather.)

Of course, the President's National Guard service proved to be Rather's undoing rather than Bush's. But long before Rathergate and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, there were reasons to doubt that Kerry's Vietnam narrative would be a winning strategy.

For one, the supposition that a military record is a key to electoral success finds little support in history. Presidents have been elected on the strength of their military service--Washington, Grant, Eisenhower--but these men were generals who led America to victory in its three greatest wars, not junior officers in an unpopular and losing conflict. Bush himself beat two Vietnam veterans in 2000: POW John McCain and Army journalist Al Gore. Bill Clinton, who evaded military service altogether, defeated World War II heroes in both 1992 and 1996. Was 2004 different by virtue of being a wartime election? But Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon both won re-election against dovish veterans, and wartime presidents Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR all had little or no military experience.

By constantly reminding Americans of the one war we lost, Kerry fed suspicions that his attitude toward the war on terror was a defeatist one. "The Democrats' problem isn't that Americans think they're wimps who lack personal courage," Peter Beinart, editor of the liberal New Republic, noted in December 2002. "Their problem is that Americans think, rightly, that they lack an agenda for protecting the country. Bush understands that in this terrifying new era, what Americans want from their leaders isn't heroism; it's clarity and direction." But few other liberal journalists shared Beinart's insight.

There was also something deeply weird about the way Kerry talked about his Vietnam experience. Not for him the quiet dignity of the true war hero; rather, he spoke of his combat experience with an odd combination of braggadocio and obsessiveness. In a December 2002 Meet the Press appearance, Kerry mentioned Vietnam nine times by Beinart's count, including in answer to a question about why he favored capital punishment for terrorists: "Just as I, in a war, was prepared to kill in defense of my nation, I also believe that you eliminate the enemy."

And Kerry's own Vietnam story was, to say the least, complicated. He first rose to public prominence not for his exploits in combat but for his leadership of the radical Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In a 1971 protest, Kerry threw what were ostensibly his own medals over a fence surrounding the U.S. Capitol; it later emerged that he had kept his medals and tossed someone else's. Earlier that year, Kerry had testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that American servicemen had committed "war crimes," including rape, murder and torture, "on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command."

These calumnies left many veterans angry and resentful, and they made it likely that Vietnam would prove to be the candidate's Achilles' heel rather than his silver bullet. One veteran quoted in Unfit for Command summed things up pointedly: "In 1971-72, for almost 18 months, [Kerry] stood before the television audiences and claimed that the 500,000 men and women in Vietnam, and in combat, were all villains--there were no heroes. In 2004, one hero from the Vietnam War has appeared, running for president of the United States and commander in chief. It just galls one to think about it."

The Kerry camp evidently hoped the media would gloss over the candidate's antiwar activities, and for the most part, for many months, they did. One exception was ABC's Charlie Gibson, who in April 2004 confronted Kerry about the 1971 medal incident. Kerry answered evasively, then muttered into a live microphone that Gibson was "doing the work of the Republican National Committee." This was a telling comment. Gibson was, in truth, doing the work of a journalist: asking a politician tough questions. But Democrats expect the mainstream media to treat them sympathetically--an expectation that has ample basis in experience.

Yet it's far from clear that such sympathy serves the Democrats' interests. Suppose that, once Kerry secured the nomination, the media had aggressively investigated and reported on his antiwar activities. The candidate would have been forced to respond. If he had been smart, he would have delivered a major speech in which, without renouncing his opposition to the Vietnam War, he repudiated and apologized for his decades-old slanders against fellow veterans. He might have concluded by saying of the Vietnam conflict, "I hope and pray we will put it behind us and go forward in a constructive spirit for the good of our party and the good of our country"--the words with which he ended a February 1992 Senate speech criticizing fellow Vietnam vet Bob Kerrey for trying to make Bill Clinton's draft avoidance an issue in that year's Democratic primaries.

This surely would have gone a long way to defusing the issue. Instead, Kerry bet that the media's silence would carry him through to the election--and he would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for those meddling Swift Boat Veterans. A month after the Democratic Convention, they launched their first round of anti-Kerry ads, coinciding with the publication of Unfit for Command. The claims that Kerry had falsified his heroics in order to win medals and an early end to his tour of duty were mostly unverifiable, and fair-minded Americans probably would have been inclined to give Kerry the benefit of the doubt. But the ads goaded Kerry into responding, which in turn forced the media to pay attention. Whereupon the Swift Boat Veterans turned their attention to Kerry's antiwar activities, on which they had him dead to rights.

Then, in early September, CBS News aired its disastrous story on Bush's National Guard service. So eager were Kerry's supporters in the media to believe the worst of the president that Rather and producer Mary Mapes went to air with a report based on obviously fabricated documents, then stood by their story for an agonizing two weeks. Yet even if it had been true--or had gone undebunked--it's unlikely it would have made a difference. As the Washington Post's liberal TV critic, Tom Shales, acknowledged with hindsight in an Inauguration Day column, "It's common knowledge that Bush was a spoiled little rich boy who did not serve with any great distinction, so this story wasn't exactly a blockbuster."

The CBS debacle marked the end of Vietnam as a campaign issue. In the remaining weeks before the election, Kerry talked a lot less about Vietnam and more about matters of contemporary concern. He performed adequately in the debates, and with the help of a massive get-out-the-vote effort he avoided a landslide defeat.

After the Swift Boat Veterans and Rathergate, it must have been clear even to Kerry that campaigning on Vietnam had led him into a quagmire. If the media had treated his war-hero narrative with more skepticism in the first place, he might have reached this realization--and developed a better campaign strategy--much earlier. Conservatives love to complain about liberal media bias, and for the most part they're right. But they should count their blessings, too. Were it not for the media reinforcing the Democrats' spin, John Kerry might be president today.

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