Hiding behind the 527 fig leaf

By Geraldine Sealey

Published August 25, 2004 4:55PM (EDT)

It was predictable that, when Ben Ginsberg resigned from his post as outside counsel for Bush-Cheney '04 today after admitting giving legal advice to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, he couldn't help taking a parting swipe at Democratic 527s. Ginsberg apparently resents that he's being shoved out the campaign door for advising the anti-Kerry 527 group when Democratic lawyers are assisting outside groups working to defeat Bush.

In his resignation letter as quoted by the New York Times, Ginsberg said his work with the Swift boat group was conducted "in a manner that is fully appropriate and legal and, in fact, is quite similar to the relationships between my counterparts at the D.N.C. and the Kerry campaign and Democrat 527's such as MoveOn.org, the Media Fund and Americans Coming Together (sic)."

Ginsberg has half a point. While the law prohibits campaign strategists from coordinating with 527s, campaign lawyers can give the groups legal advice. But Ginsberg's posturing about 527s is a fig leaf, much like Bush's own repudiation of 527s earlier this week. The real problem, of course, isn't that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is a 527 group with a web of connections to Bush, but that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a 527 group with a web of connections to Bush, has been lying about John Kerry.

So far, this distinction has not been stressed enough in the media, which too often during the Swift boat debacle have suggested a tit-for-tat equality in the work of the anti-Kerry smear campaign and that of progressive groups like MoveOn.org. Even the New York Times this morning, while reporting the Ginsberg-SBVT connection, pointed out pretty high up in the story that Kerry shares a lawyer, Robert Bauer, with America Coming Together. "Mr. Ginsberg said his role was no different from Mr. Bauer's," the Times story noted, leaving it at that.

The lawyers may play similar "roles," but the work of the Swift boat vets and America Coming Together should not be equated. So far as we know, and correct us if we're wrong, ACT has not spread blatant lies about President Bush. Criticism, yes. Harsh criticism, sure. MoveOn.org, likewise, has pushed the envelope with edgy ads like the "Censure" campaign, calling for the official censure of Bush by Congress for taking the nation to war under false pretenses. A similarly aggressive ad campaign called on Bush to fire Donald Rumsfeld over the Abu Ghraib scandal and a litany of other failures. But so did the editorial pages of many major newspapers. And while it's true that MoveOn's new retaliatory ad questions Bush's own military service (an ad Kerry repudiated) -- so did USA Today yesterday in an article pointing out what holes remain in the president's Guard record.

As the Los Angeles Times put it: "In both cases, the candidates are the reason the [527] groups are in business. There is an important difference, though, between the side campaign being run for Kerry and the one for Bush. The pro-Kerry campaign is nasty and personal. The pro-Bush campaign is nasty, personal and false."

There's a good reason for that difference. As Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org told Salon's Tim Grieve, Bush has given his group more than enough material for its ads by being president for four years. There's no need to make it up. "I think we're mostly going to focus on issue stuff, on Iraq, on the big places where Bush has failed," he said.

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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