By attempting to stir up resentment in the military ranks and impugn Vice President Al Gore's patriotism over the weekend, the closest associates of Gov. George W. Bush demonstrated their unfitness to exercise the power they seek so avidly. To the extent that the sequestered Republican candidate himself approved such questionable tactics -- as he presumably must have done -- the same description applies to Bush personally.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with Republican attorneys arguing on behalf of any absentee ballot they feel should be tallied in support of their candidate -- whether it originated at a military installation or elsewhere. Nor is it unfair for them to point out that Americans serving abroad may face special difficulties in meeting the requirements of election law, including timely postmarks. On its face, that is a position that engenders natural sympathy among most Americans (as the Gore campaign ought to have immediately realized).
But as with so many complaints voiced by the Bush campaign in recent days, there was scant evidence to support their claim that Democratic Party or the Gore campaign was seeking to target absentee ballots sent in by military personnel for disqualification. The Republicans pointed to a memorandum on overseas absentee ballots prepared by a Democratic lawyer in Tallahassee that, on closer examination, merely explains technical aspects of Florida election law -- in much the same fashion as a memo reportedly sent out by the GOP. And by Sunday, Gore's running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, had supported the idea that the nixed military ballots should somehow by counted, as did, on Monday, Florida's attorney general, also a Democrat.
Lawyers on both sides are well advised to examine each one with care. But the vaunted Republican admiration for the rigid "rule of law" apparently fades whenever their partisan interests are threatened: Ironic, considering reports of Republican manipulation of absentee ballots both in this election and in past Florida races.
Bush's lieutenants, however, went much further than their usual sniping when they promoted the inflammatory statements by Gov. Marc Racicot, R-Mont., and retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Their manipulation of patriotic fervor was typically cynical, but far worse was their disgraceful effort to alienate service personnel from the second-highest official of the existing civilian government.
That doesn't seem to have mattered much to Schwarzkopf, who now regularly lends his illustrious presence to Republican publicity. At the behest of his Kennebunkport cronies, Stormin' Norman suggested that "men and women of the armed forces" were being unfairly denied "the right to vote for the president of the United States who will be their commander in chief," while "other ballots ... have already been counted twice and are now being counted a third time." Schwarzkopf's remarks, echoed more harshly by Bush communications director Karen Hughes, set up the frothing Racicot -- who declared that "the vice president's lawyers have gone to war in my judgment against the men and women who serve in our armed forces."
This certainly isn't the first time Republicans have misused their advantage among the uniformed ranks for partisan purposes. Such schemes are an intermittent temptation, dating to the coup-plotting against Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, and the attempt to destabilize Harry S Truman by right-wing forces rallying around Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the 1950s. Remember when Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., warned President Clinton not to visit a military base in North Carolina because he might not be safe there? In a democracy, that kind of rhetoric gives off a sinister smell of sedition. It is one reason why the most rabid GOP partisans, like Racicot, seem to deserve to be nicknamed Banana Republicans.
Until recently, the avuncular Schwarzkopf wouldn't seem to fit that unflattering description. Since his retirement, the salty old soldier who became famous for his televised press conferences during the Gulf War has gone about making his fortune as an author, inspirational speaker ("Leadership: From the War Room to the Board Room" is his usual theme, rallying the troops of bankers and salespeople from coast to coast), and corporate director (Home Shopping Network, Remington Arms). He also serves on the boards of charities dedicated to conservation and sick children.
Yet in his current devotion to the ambitions of his old boss' son, Schwarzkopf has gone a bit overboard. So it has seemed since last summer, at least, when he appeared on the deck of the USS New Jersey, while that vessel was being tastelessly deployed to celebrate the Republican Convention in Philadelphia. Having endorsed George W. Bush and his old friend Dick Cheney, the retired general later showed up in a controversial "public service" commercial, created at the behest of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, urging viewers to get out and vote. (He didn't need to say for whom.)
Using his celebrity to push Bush is Schwarzkopf's right as an American, of course, even though it looks tacky whenever a military figure exploits public reverence for partisan aims. (It looks even sillier to anyone familiar with the Texas governor's own military record, but that's another story.) And if the former general feels that the votes of servicepeople are being unfairly excluded, then surely he has a right to speak out about that, too. Where Schwarzkopf may have crossed a line was in allowing himself to be used to damage the reputation and authority of the second in line to the presidency.
Even so, he seems entirely innocent when his behavior is compared with the demagogic conduct of the Banana Republicans who used him and his good name. The closer that Bush gets to the Oval Office, the uglier his campaign's tactics are becoming. Should he eventually take over, he will be trailing a faint but still offensive whiff of the jackboot.