Right Hook

Limbaugh says Americans don't care about Bush's National Guard problem because they love him; Lowry says Kerry smeared Vietnam vets, Coulter shrieks that he stalks lonely heiresses. Plus: Dissenting thoughts on same-sex marriage.


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Mark Follman
February 19, 2004 4:06AM (UTC)

The expected Republican attack against Democratic front-runner John Kerry was launched in earnest last week when Internet gossip Matt Drudge floated a vague rumor that Kerry would soon implode over a Clintonesque "intern problem." But the bit was largely ignored by the mainstream media, which gave chase but apparently found no evidence to back it up. On Monday, Alex Polier, the woman alleged to have had the affair with Kerry, released a statement to the New York Times flatly denying the rumor.

But other Bush defenders are taking a different approach to knocking Kerry down. Not long ago, right-wing pundit and blogger Hugh Hewitt was applauding gleefully when it appeared that party maverick Howard Dean might surge all the way to the Democratic nomination. In Hewitt's view, President Bush would stomp all over an ultra-lefty peacenik from Vermont in the November election. But with the deck reshuffled, Hewitt now hopes to slap the same lefty card on Kerry -- never mind Kerry's Senate voting record, widely considered centrist, or the fact that Dean himself has grilled Kerry for being far to the right of his own campaign platform.

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"John Kerry is an extraordinarily weak candidate because his politics are very far to the left of the center in the U.S. Senate and the United States at large. Added to this difficulty is the fact that Kerry began his career as a radical, and radicals have to confront their own past and either embrace it or deny it, and if the latter, with clarity as to when and why their thinking changed.

"This will be a very difficult process for Kerry as there is no evidence that his thinking about Vietnam, or the larger issues the debate over the war contained, has changed much. Friendly voices in the media ... seem to sense that any serious look at Kerry's radicalism will undermine his candidacy, so expect a chorus of 'that was 30 years ago' to rise in defense of Kerry's attempt to white-out his political opinions from the '70s."

But that defense won't work, says Hewitt, because of the Dems' decision to chase after President Bush's spotty National Guard record.

"That was a possible strategy until DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe branded President Bush as 'AWOL' and the press went on its one-week frenzy. But that absurd exercise -- note how over it [was] this weekend with the release of a Guard record showing Bush to have been a skilled pilot, and the arrival of first-person testimonies as to Bush's service in the areas disputed by the nuts and paranoids -- opened the door to the '70s."

Indeed, National Review editor Rich Lowry has charged through that "open door" and attacked Kerry's post-Vietnam transformation in graphic, though rather convoluted, terms.

"In his famed 1971 antiwar congressional testimony, Kerry cited the so-called Winter Soldier Investigation, which gathered falsified testimonials of atrocities committed by American soldiers. Kerry regurgitated stories of rapes, beheadings, torture and pillaging ('in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan') as part of his indictment against the Vietnam War. So it is odd that Kerry would celebrate the 'band of brothers' he now says are fighting on behalf of his candidacy the way they once fought for their country. Does that mean they will behead Howard Dean and pillage the John Edwards campaign headquarters?

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"Asked about the testimony the other day by Knight Ridder, Kerry said he relied on the Winter Soldier Investigation 'because some of it was highly documented and very disturbing. I did in my heart what I thought was correct to help people understand what was going on. I've always honored the service of people over there. I never insinuated that everybody fell into one pot. I was looking forward to telling the truth about some of the things that were happening.'"

But according to Lowry, nothing of the sort happened in Vietnam. Deconstructing Kerry's 1971 congressional testimony, Lowry argues that Kerry peddled "totally unsubstantiated" reports, "insinuated that the atrocities were widespread," and "traded in falsehoods." Maybe Lowry missed the chilling exposé by the Toledo Blade last November -- much lauded but underreported -- detailing American atrocities in Vietnam that were buried by the U.S. government for more than two decades. In any case, Lowry disagrees in general with Kerry about Vietnam; the decade-long quagmire, he argues, was a just strategic pursuit.

"Kerry wasn't just wrong about the vets, he was wrong about the big picture, too. He called Vietnam a 'mystical war against communism.' Given the massive aid to the North Vietnamese from the Soviets and Chinese, it was clearly a very real war against communism. 'We cannot fight communism all over the world,' Kerry declared. But in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan fought communism in hot spots all over the globe and won the Cold War.

"Kerry will never reverse his opposition to the Vietnam War, but he should at least disavow his smear of Vietnam vets. He owes his 'band of brothers' an apology, unless he still thinks they are a criminal gang."

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America's "deeper" love for Bush will save him
Shortly after the Bush National Guard story commandeered the headlines, right-wing radio icon Rush Limbaugh concluded that doing battle with Bush over respective military records will backfire on the Dems:

"If I'm not mistaken, didn't Dole try to make an issue in '96 of Clinton's lack of military service versus his, Dole's super service? It didn't work, did it? It didn't work. And why didn't it work? I know you're not going to want to hear this, but the American people liked Bill Clinton. They liked him enough that they didn't want to hear that, and it didn't matter. Bush has the same amount of love, if not more, that Clinton had. It's deeper and of a different kind, but he still has it. This is going to fall flat. It isn't going to amount to a hill of beans. Nobody wants to relive the Vietnam War. The liberals can't get out of the sixties; they don't want to get out of the sixties. They want to reestablish the sixties. This is how they're going to try to do it; they're going after Bush's not showing up for the National Guard. This is very crafty of Kerry, saying, 'Well, the issue has been raised, I think we need to get to the bottom of it' ... This will come back and backfire on them."

Unlike Limbaugh, über-right columnist Ann Coulter, whose weekly rants appear on the conservative clearing house Townhall.com, seems a bit less sure that Kerry would lose a contest against Bush based on their military records.

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"Kerry was indisputably brave in Vietnam, and it's kind of cute to see Democrats pretend to admire military service. Physical courage, like chastity, is something liberals usually deride, but are tickled when it accidentally manifests itself in one of their own. One has to stand in awe of Kerry's military service 33 years ago. Of course, that's where it ends, including with Kerry -- inasmuch as, upon his return from war in 1970, he promptly began trashing his fellow Vietnam vets by calling them genocidal murderers."

If Kerry's turning against the Vietnam War as a young veteran isn't enough to bring him down now, Coulter has other weighty charges:

"If Bush can't talk to Kerry about the horrors of war, then Kerry sure as hell can't talk to anyone about the plight of the middle class. Kerry's life experience consists of living off other men's money by marrying their wives and daughters.

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"For over 30 years, Kerry's primary occupation has been stalking lonely heiresses. Not to get back to his combat experience, but Kerry sees a room full of wealthy widows as 'a target-rich environment.' This is a guy whose experience dealing with tax problems is based on spending his entire adult life being supported by rich women. What does a kept man know about taxes?"

Maybe she hasn't hit her stride yet; Kerry gets off easy in comparison with Coulter's shameful butchering last week of a decorated Vietnam veteran and former senator, Max Cleland, who also criticized Bush's National Guard record.

A more thoughtful Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, sees a wider range of possibilities for defeating Kerry -- and thinks national security is in fact a key vulnerability for him.

"For Bush operatives, the problem with Kerry is where to begin. National security? Gay marriage? Flip-flops? Special interests? Beginning with national security makes the most sense since it's Kerry's weakest issue. It's the one he least wants to discuss. All that bravado about 'bring it on' if Bush wants to raise national security actually means 'don't bring it on.' By talking tough, Kerry hopes to scare Bush off. The emphasis on Kerry's heroism as a young naval officer is designed to inoculate him on national security. It shouldn't. He's voted against practically every weapon the military relies on, and he's made a strong bid to slash intelligence funding. Cutting the CIA budget may have looked safe in the 1990s, but post-9/11 it doesn't."

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Though sanguine about Bush's reelection prospects, Barnes concedes that America may be in uncharted political territory with the 2004 election.

"Bush should have no trouble scoring off Kerry on issue after issue. Politics, however, is a strange business. You never know what will stick. The charge that Bush shirked National Guard duty in Alabama in 1972 and 1973 didn't catch on in the 2000 campaign, but now it has touched off a press feeding frenzy."

"Marriage has never been federal in America"
After the latest court ruling in Massachusetts and a wave of gay marriages granted in San Francisco this week, some social liberals -- while elated by the trend -- are also concerned that events have gone too far, too fast. A rash of federal court injunctions are in the works, and conservatives are likely to stoke the divisive issue during this year's campaign, with Bush having signaled that he'd support a constitutional amendment banning the practice. Republican commentator Andrew Sullivan is looking to undercut any momentum in that direction by appealing to conservatives' traditional support for states' rights.

"Part of the argument against marriage rights for gays has been that Massachusetts will change the entire country's legal position. Such marriages will be forced onto other states, some argue. But this is simply untrue. First, the law and the constitution have always allowed states to refuse to recognize marriages in other states, if such marriages violate the public policy of said states. That's why we had different standards for inter-racial marriages across the states for decades; and why we had different age-requirements; and different divorce standards. Marriage has never been federal in America. That's particularly the case now because 38 states have their own 'Defense of Marriage' laws, underpinning this fact. Think of it like a law license: it has to be re-credited in every state it is enforced in...

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"Federalism, in other words, works. In a country as culturally polarized as this one, I'd say federalism is an essential safety-valve for cultural conflict. Why not have different rules for marriage in San Francisco and Provincetown than in Missoula or Baton Rouge? Can't we live with diversity? We do not need this federal amendment. We do not need it at all. And true conservatives -- those who believe in states' rights -- should be in the forefront of opposition."

But as blogger Glenn Reynolds notes on InstaPundit that argument can cut both ways:

"I'm in favor of gay marriage, but nonetheless I think that Rod Dreher [who posts on the National Review's blog, "The Corner,"] has a good point:

What I don't get is this: why was it wrong for Judge Roy Moore of Alabama to unilaterally declare federal law wrong, and defy it by installing a Ten Commandments monument in a courthouse rotunda ... but it's okay for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to unilaterally declare state law wrong in prohibiting same-sex marriage, and defy it by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples? I mean, I know why the media was outraged by the former episode of grandstanding and not the latter, but as a legal matter, what's the difference?

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"Newsom would deny others the right to violate a law he believes in, but feels free to violate the law himself when he chooses, even though his sole claim to legitimacy as a government official comes from the law," Reynolds adds. "It's not civil disobedience when it's done by someone who controls the machinery of government -- it's usurpation, even when it's in a cause I agree with."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.


Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

MORE FROM Mark Follman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Ann Coulter Gay Marriage John F. Kerry, D-mass. Rush Limbaugh

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