General Wesley "Flap-jaw" Clark recently said of John McCain that "riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down" is no qualification to be president, and the immediate accusation was that he was guilty of "swiftboating." Two disgraceful things are going on here, starting with Clark’s mouth.
It frequently goes awry. Some think untoward utterances, along with flabbergasting decisions, got him pushed from his job as NATO commander, and who can forget how confused he became when he ran for president in 2003 and was asked if he would have voted for the congressional resolution authorizing war in Iraq?
First he said he would have, then he said he would not have, then he said he did not know, then — famously — he shouted, "Mary, help," calling an aide who cleared up the matter for the press, even as the general began sinking in public estimation.
Now we have this doozy about McCain, whose heroism as a tortured prisoner of war in Vietnam included his refusal to accept release unless his fellow POWs were also let go. His actions testify to his character, hardly unimportant in someone who wants to be president, if in and of itself not reason enough to vote for him. But there’s more, of course — all his years in the Senate and a long list of bills he was instrumental in getting passed.
Of course, on the other hand, we have Barack Obama, who may not have accomplished nearly as much in his short political life, but sure speaks well.
Disgrace Number Two is the use of the word "swiftboating" to describe mendacious slurs on a political candidate. As a recent New York Times story put it, "swift boat" has "become a synonym for the nastiest of campaign smears . . . " But the real smear is against the honorable Vietnam veterans of swift boat service who raised serious, responsible allegations against Democratic nominee John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.
Kerry brought it on himself. As a young man, he came back to the United States after a four-month combat stint, got involved with a bunch of radicals and — already politically ambitious — testified before Congress that the Americans who fought in Vietnam were all war criminals on the order of the barbarians fighting under Genghis Khan. Then, at his nominating convention, he put on a show about what a fantastic patriot he was, the obvious intent being to stymie criticism for his earlier activities. It was provocative, instead. He should simply have apologized.
The left was outraged by the accusations against Kerry, maintaining that everything the vets said was a lie, but as a matter of non-ideological, nonpartisan truth, the vets did catch Kerry in whoppers — his repeated assertions of fighting in Cambodia, his denial that he attended a radicals’ meeting where there was a defeated and Kerry-opposed vote on murdering U.S. senators, and his assertion during the campaign that all his military records were available online.
They weren’t. After the campaign, additional records were released to three news organizations that did not themselves make them publicly available; to this day, we still have no way independent of those press reports to test the truth of some of the charges against Kerry.
In columns and news stories, an acquaintance of mine, Thomas Lipscomb, has done the best reporting to be found on this subject, far better than the half-baked stuff we’ve had even from some of our most prestigious publications even as so many commentators casually malign the swift-boat veterans who criticized Kerry.
Maybe someday, these commentators could visit with one of my closest friends and see the hurt as he discusses how he came back from Vietnam proud of having done his duty and astonished to find himself treated like a pariah. Kerry and his buddies had something to do with that, and the veterans who took him to task were far more justified than General Clark in a comment that is not major, major, just dumb, dumb.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)