The Kerry Flap

Speaking of grotesque misrepresentations of people’s words, a few thoughts about the Kerry flap.

Here is what Kerry said to students at Pasadena City College:

You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.


The right-wingers were all over this, of course. Here’s the elitist Kerry calling our troops stupid and uneducated. It is ridiculous that Kerry, a veteran himself, would actually think such a thing. But even if by some fluke he did think it, he would not be foolish enough to say it out loud. So we might suspect an alternative explanation.

His prepared text called for him to say:

Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush.

So this was obviously a botched joke, just as Kerry said. Which didn’t stop the right-wingers harping on it over and over again. Andrew Sullivan has a good explanation of just how sleazy that is:

Now what do I next remember? I remember that the president vehemently went after Kerry, as did McCain. Now, when a president decides to do such a thing, his staff have examined the upsides and downsides every which way. They are paid to know any possible backfire for the remarks. And Rove is very smart. So this much I now know: knowing full well that he was deeply distorting Kerry’s meaning, the president used the quote full-bore to impugn Kerry’s commitment to the troops – and to help turn the base against the Democrats.

I know it’s politics. I’m not naive. But it’s also revealing about someone’s character that he could authorize and exploit such a thing. Most fair-minded people will have to concede that, in retrospect, this was a very, very, very low blow. It hadn’t sunk in for me till last night how low. In retrospect, this incident says much more about Bush than about Kerry. I’ll bet I’m not the only one mulling that over this morning.

And that got me thinking about this article from Slate editor Jacob Weisberg. One of the most exasperating tropes of modern politics is that “both parties do it.” But they don’t. The Republicans are much more vile and much less interested in fair play. After summarizing some of the most egregious negative political ads this election season, Weisberg writes:

The other familiar excuse for negative advertising is that “everybody does it.” Newspaper stories about attack commercials usually include a sampling of harsh Democratic spots in an effort to appear evenhanded. But there’s really no comparison between what the two parties and their respective surrogates are doing. According to factcheck.org, a respected site that reviews the accuracy of various ads, “the National Republican Campaign Committee’s work stands out this year for the sheer volume of assaults on the personal character of Democratic House challengers.” Negative Democratic ads tie Republican candidates to President Bush, and to the Iraq war, or accuse them of being in the tank for the oil or pharmaceutical industries. But Democratic ads do not charge that their opponents “prey on our children”–even though one recently resigned following accusations that he did precisely that. One can only imagine the ads Republicans would have made this year if Mark Foley had happened to be a Democrat.

In fact, the form, style, and content of the contemporary attack ad are a specifically conservative contribution to American politics. Republicans have developed most of the techniques, vocabulary, and symbolism at work in these spots over the last couple of decades. Some of the motifs go back to Nixon and Spiro Agnew, but you can trace most of the elements back to the presidential campaign Lee Atwater ran for George H.W. Bush in 1988, best remembered for the Willie Horton ad and the charge that Michael Dukakis was a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.” What’s different in this election is simply the ubiquity of the conservative calumny and, in some cases, the aggressiveness of the Democratic response. Spreading hatred and poisonous lies about one’s opponent has become an ordinary and almost accepted part of running for office.

Exactly right. And that brings us back to the Kerry flap. Consider the following exchange, from political commentator Craig Crawford’s appearance on the MSNBC show Countdown last night:

OLBERMANN: And lastly, whether John Boehner was referring to just the generals, or the generals and the troops, how did he get away with that when John Kerry had the entire world fall down on top of his head?

CRAWFORD: Well, I think it’s a (INAUDIBLE), it’s a matter of, you know, taking the clips out of context or not, and making a campaign message out of it. It has to be driven. Somebody has to drive it. And Democrats don’t tend to do that. I go back to when Rumsfeld said similar things about, You find–you fight with the Army you have, not the one you want. I mean, he was talking about body armor, but you could have clipped that out and said he was slamming the troops.

Democrats don’t have the–you know, they don’t go for the, they don’t go for the throat (INAUDIBLE) on stuff like that.

Again, exactly right. The complete evisceration of any sense of shame or conscience comes far more easily to Republican politicians than to Democratic ones. The two parties are definitely not the same.

Comments

  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    November 3, 2006

    Of course you know that you’re going to receive a fair amount of trolls who will accuse you of being a partisan shill for not making it extremely clear that the Democrats are not political angels who are innocent of mishaps in their own right. It’s Compulsive Centrist Disorder, or at least a knee-jerk “two wrong make a right” defense among Republicans.

    I totally agree that modern attack-politics came almost exclusively from Republicans. Systematic character assassination is how conservatives re-established themselves during the Reagan era. Conservatism should have died after Goldwater’s campaign went down in flames in 1964, but Republicans rebounded by co-opting the religious right and launching a consistent defamation campaign against the entire ideology of liberalism.

    The most melancholic aspect of it is that it worked, and looking at the current political landscape says quite a bit about American gullibility.

  2. #2 MarkP
    November 3, 2006

    Gee, taking a quote from someone out of context to try to make it look like they believe something they don’t. I believe that’s called “quote mining”. Now let’s see, what other group does that?

  3. #3 Fred
    November 4, 2006

    Ah, I get it. He didn’t mean to say the folks in the military are stupid and uneducated, he meant to say that the President is stupid and intellectually lazy. Way to fight a clean fight! Thank God the Dems don’t resort to mudslinging! If Bush made a speech saying that Kerry was stupid we’d never hear the end of it.

    But even if by some fluke he did think it, he would not be foolish enough to say it out loud. So we might suspect an alternative explanation.

    I have to disagree with this. I’m supposed to think he’s smart enough to keep this thought to himself, but not smart enough to be able to read a simple sentence? Is that what you’re saying? That I should hear him say that line and think to myself “that moron who nearly became President can’t read?”

    PS: Kerry couldn’t even read a simple joke that said *Bush* is stupid. My irony meter is broken, anyone have one I can borrow?

  4. #4 Davis
    November 4, 2006

    I have to disagree with this. I’m supposed to think he’s smart enough to keep this thought to himself, but not smart enough to be able to read a simple sentence?

    So in all honesty, you thought that Kerry was intending to say that people in the military are stupid?

    Do you have any experience with public speaking of any kind? Do you realize how easy it is to flub lines? I mean, it’s not like any other politician ever screws up — all those Bushisms were intentional (I’ll add, before I get accused of thinking otherwise, that I consider those particular assaults on Bush a bit unfair, even though they’re funny).

  5. #5 truth machine
    November 4, 2006

    He didn’t mean to say the folks in the military are stupid and uneducated, he meant to say that the President is stupid and intellectually lazy. Way to fight a clean fight!

    He meant to say that, if you don’t do your homework and make an effort to be smart, as Bush demonstrably has not done, then you can end up creating a horrid mess, as Bush has demonstrably done. There’s nothing dirty about that — at least, not to anyone with brains.

    I have to disagree with this. I’m supposed to think he’s smart enough to keep this thought to himself, but not smart enough to be able to read a simple sentence?

    He’s a lot smarter than you are. I have trouble even imagining someone being so stupid that they think that Kerry’s fumbling a line is an indication of his intelligence, or of inability to read the line. And yet here you are.

  6. #6 Richard Wein
    November 4, 2006

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it true that many (not all) US service people do join up because they lack the educational qualifications to get good civilian jobs? In that case Kerry’s actual words are quite justified (regardless of what he intended).

  7. #7 Paul T.
    November 4, 2006

    Thanks to Ted Haggard for shifting the media spotlight off of John Kerry. It seems the Republicans just can’t get a break this year.

  8. #8 mark
    November 4, 2006

    It’s true the US Army has lowered its standards in order to meet its quotas, but it didn’t strike me that Kerry’s remark was aimed at the troops–it was obviously his opinion of the Decider-in-Chief, who started an unnecessary war and is “staying the course,” i.e., “stuck” in that war.

  9. #9 Fred
    November 4, 2006

    OK, hands up everyone, who, when they INITIALLY heard the Kerry quote, immediately thought, “He must have read that wrong,” as opposed to “what the hell is he thinking?”

  10. #10 Dom
    November 4, 2006

    Check out what politicians in Michigan are saying about MCRI. They tried to take it off the ballot, and BAMN (though they are not politicians) have disrupted discussions of the issue. Much worse, it seems to me, than the Kerry flap.

    Jason, get back to evolution, please.

  11. #11 kim
    November 4, 2006

    Fred — I heard him hesitating and stumbling and thought “What was that supposed to sound like?” as in what went wrong?. Maybe he doesn’t tell jokes well — a lot of people don’t. It’s a talent.
    It’s also a danger with someone else writing one’s remarks. But they all have that problem.

  12. #12 Johan Richter
    November 5, 2006

    Marginalrevolution has a nice discussion about what he said. http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2006/11/the_kerry_joke.html

  13. #13 slpage
    November 5, 2006

    “OK, hands up everyone, who, when they INITIALLY heard the Kerry quote, immediately thought, “He must have read that wrong,” as opposed to “what the hell is he thinking?”"

    Here is what I thought the first time I saw the clip:

    “Something is missing… Its being taken ouit of context”

    I know Kerry is a humorless stiff, but I could not believe that he would insult the troops this close to an election.

    And he didn’t.

    Of course, right wing gutter pigs don’t appear to care – anything is fair game when it comes to winning elections. Their lust for power and immoral and unethical characters prevent them from caring.

  14. #14 kevin
    November 5, 2006

    ” It has to be driven. Somebody has to drive it. And Democrats don’t tend to do that”

    err no…the republican lapdogs that pass for our main-stream media are always ready to bash any democrat and oh so ready to repeat the republican talking points..over and over….

    I saw six talking heads today all ask “how much of a bounce is the saddam verdict going to have? How great is this for the republicans?”

    and the NY Times! cripes the story leads for the last week have been…democrats afraid, fighting, losers…while repthugs are strong, coming back, determined…

  15. #15 beepbeepitsme
    November 6, 2006

    The truth might be hard to take. The reality is that a lot of guys join the military because they don’t have too many employment options.

    The reality is that the military patrols secondary schools looking for likely candidates for the services. They are especially interested, as they always have been, in those students who don’t fit an academic profile, as these kids obviously have less options.

    Quite a few of the members of my family have been in the military under various circumstances, so this is not a comment intended to slag off the military. The reality is that young guys, who don’t have a good academic option are scouted to join the services.

    The “grunts” on the ground are NOT primarily young men who are taking a few years off from medical school to try and get shot at in Iraq. Though it is true that some young men with many academic options join the army as a matter of personal conscience.

    Personally, I don’t think that Kerry should feel bad about what he said. The poor have nearly always been in the front lines, no point in lying about it.

  16. #16 KeithB
    November 6, 2006

    “OK, hands up everyone, who, when they INITIALLY heard the Kerry quote, immediately thought, “He must have read that wrong,” as opposed to “what the hell is he thinking?”"

    I thought:
    That certainly sounds like the kind of joke that officers say about the enlisted men behind their backs.

  17. #17 Jim
    November 6, 2006

    Fred:
    I usually enjoy your comments. You usually seem like a fairly sensible person, but I find it hard to believe that anyone having the intelligence that you’ve shown in the past could have come to the conclusion that you have on this matter. I consider myself fairly neutral on political issues & it seemed painfully obvious to me that he was talking about the president. I don’t even think he needed to say that it was a botched joke. It is the president, after all, that made the decision to invade Iraq & to “stay the course”. The president is the one who can not leave with sacrificing so much political might of his party. The soldier, on the other hand, did nothing to get him/herself stuck in Iraq except join-up (a decision that Kerry himself made at one time). The Democrat leaders rhetoric, after all, for the past 1.5 years has been that “the president is stuck in Iraq”. Using the phrase “getting stuck in Iraq” when referring to the leader who made the decision to commit troups there seems very natural & to conclude something else almost has to be intellectual dishonesty. This very phrase has been used MANY times in past conflicts in the very same context with no confusion what-so-ever. Kerry’s only crime here was speaking as if speaking to normal people in his living-room instead of being politically cautious with his words. I hate to say it Fred, but your remark had the tone of the wild-eyed creationist who looks for any loop-hole, no matter how far-fetched. I think you are right though that had the president implied that Kerry was stupid a lot more might have been made of it but that would be because it so obviously is not true.

  18. #18 Bill C
    November 7, 2006

    I am sure that Kerry’s comments were also directed at the president when he said:

    “Young American soldiers are going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night, terrorizing kids and children and women…”

    After the Viet Nam war Kerry must have anticipated Bush when he said:

    “American soldiers personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires to genitals…”

    How foolish for anyone to believe that Kerry is against soldiers. He was obviously misreading comments aimed at Bush.

  19. #19 Michael Ralston
    November 7, 2006

    Because, Bill, it’s pro-American to deny crimes happened, as opposed to trying to stop them?

  20. #20 Jim
    November 8, 2006

    Thanks Michael. It really is hard to respond to someone like Bill C with tact. His statement is so inane I guess all you can really do is point out the obvious.

  21. #21 kevin
    November 8, 2006

    “Personally, I don’t think that Kerry should feel bad about what he said.”

    errrr beepy? he never meant to say that….he meant to say “get US stuck in Iraq” i.e. the BushHead got us stuck there because he was a C+ student.

    Soooooooo….Kerry didn’t want to appoligise for something he didn’t mean to say….although…he’s an ass and he did say it…

    but remember Bush said he stays up nights thinking of ways to harm our country and nobody thought that was wierd.