Cleland in Crawford

By Tim Grieve

Published August 25, 2004 6:25PM (EDT)

We've never actually wanted to be in Crawford, Texas, before. It's hot, the dogs are always yapping at the armadillos, and we don't share the Republicans' odd fetish for clearing brush. All that having been said, who would want to miss the grand political theater unfolding at the gates of the Prairie Chapel Ranch this afternoon?

Former Sen. Max Cleland, who lost both legs and part of an arm fighting in Vietnam, only to be smeared by Republicans as some kind of Saddam Hussein sycophant and Osama bin Laden-lite, is at the Bush ranch this afternoon, trying to deliver a letter to the president asking him to stop the Republican smears against another Vietnam vet, John Kerry.

The letter, signed by seven sitting U.S. senators, asks Bush to "specifically condemn the recent attack ads and accompanying campaign which dishonor Senator John Kerrys combat record in the Vietnam War." The senators say that the charges represent the "worst kind of politics" and a "blatant attempt at character assassination."

Surprise of surprises, Bush didn't come out to accept the letter. Cleland was stopped at the gate by a state trooper, and the Bush campaign asked another Vietnam veteran, Texas state land commissioner Jerry Patterson, to accept the letter from Cleland. Fox News reports that Cleland didn't give the letter to Patterson.

The point was made, anyway. Cleland's pilgrimage to Crawford is the latest sign that the Kerry campaign smells blood in the water stirred up by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. By any conventional measure, the Swifties' scurrilous allegations are bad news for Kerry. But now the story has started to turn on Bush a bit: The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have largely debunked the allegations, and on Wednesday morning, Bush's top political lawyer, Benjamin Ginsberg, a key player in the Republicans' legal fight for the White House in 2000, resigned over his ties to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Fence-sitting voters are likely still getting the message that there's some question about Kerry's military record, but they also may be getting the message that Bush -- whose military record is nothing but questions -- had at least a little to do with the anti-Kerry smears.

That's part of the Kerry goal. The other part -- maybe the most important part -- is to hold on to whatever support Kerry can muster from fellow veterans. In the letter Cleland carried Wednesday, the seven senators make the point that the swift boat attacks are attacks on all veterans -- that if Kerry's medals are questioned, so are everyone's.

"We brothers and sisters in arms expect our Commander-in-Chief to stand up and reject this assault upon John Kerrys honor, the honor of American veterans and that of the United States Navy," the senators wrote.

"As you yourself have said, there is nothing complicated about supporting our troops. The leader of this nation should make it clear that the members of our military will not only be supported when they wear the uniform, but also when they return home to the land they fought to defend. Their valor and their wounds, both physical and psychological, make them heroes for as long as they live, a status which should not and must not change simply because they seek to enter public service. We who wore the uniform, served in different branches of the military join together today to defend a fellow veteran from attacks we know to be false, and politically-motivated slander. Such attacks have no place in our democratic process."

The letter was signed by Sens. Daniel Inouye, Fritz Hollings, Tom Harkin, Jack Reed, Tom Carper, Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg, all Democrats. While they invoked the name of GOP Sen. John McCain, who previously called on Bush to denounce the ads, McCain didn't sign the letter himself. But he didn't sign the anti-Kerry letter Jerry Patterson presented, either. That was signed by House Armed Services Committee chair Duncan Hunter, California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Texas Rep. Sam Johnson. Others who signed the letter, according to Fox News, are retired Lt. Col. Richard Castle and Lt. Gen. Dave Palmer, a former superintendent at West Point, along with Robert O'Malley and James Fleming, who received Medals of Honor for their Marine Corps service in Vietnam.

The anti-Kerry vets' letter made the case that Kerry was trying to have it "both ways," by running on his war-hero record while also saying he and other soldiers committed atrocities in Vietnam. "You can't have it both ways," it read. "You can't build your convention and much of your campaign around your service in Vietnam, and then try to say that only those veterans who agree with you have a right to speak up." That isn't exactly what Kerry said -- he's denying the Swift Boat Vets' version of events, not their right to speech -- but so far such subtleties have been lost in this debate.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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