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.