Quacking like a canard
On Wednesday evening, Karl Rove was ushered to the roundtable of PBS, where he wiped all but angelic fingerprints off the Swift boat liars. Along the way, he repeated the canard that in his April 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ho Chi (sorry, John) Kerry called all American soldiers war criminals.
This dirty little barnyard beast of a slur has been quacking around the airwaves for weeks, but master moderator Jim Lehrer has evidently been too busy to fact-check. In the majestic presence of Rove, he stood mute on the subject -- no question, no comment, nothing. It would be beneath his dignity, perhaps, to look up the transcript of Kerry's testimony, the Googling of which takes a grand total of 0.52 seconds. PBS' house historians had nothing to say on the subject, either, no doubt preoccupied with the burning question of the tradition of vice-presidential appearances at conventions and other such urgent pursuits.
If any of these worthies had lifted fingers to keyboard, they would have seen that Kerry was citing the testimony of more than a hundred veterans at a Vietnam Veterans against the War event in Detroit earlier that year. Kerry was there. He heard 71 of them say they were eyewitnesses to war crimes. He heard 13 more say that they themselves had committed war crimes.
He summarized what he heard in words sound-bitten into the Swifties' second commercial as follows: "They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads ... randomly shot at civilians ... cut off limbs, blown up bodies ... razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan ... crimes committed on a day-to-day basis ... ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam."
They: the soldiers who bore witness to what they had seen and done. He never said that all American soldiers had committed war crimes. Repeat, never.
No one but a raw propagandist could deny that some American soldiers committed war crimes in Vietnam. No scholar fails to recognize that Washington policies like “free fire zones” (read: shoot anything that moves) prescribed those crimes. That is exactly what Kerry said in 1971.
If it walks like a canard and quacks like a canard, it's … the Public Broadcasting System.
When asked about Bob Dole's smear of his “good friend” John Kerry, George Bush Senior told CNN's Paula Zahn on Monday: "I have great confidence in Bob Dole. … I don't think he'd be out there just smearing. I think he was concerned about what he actually saw with his own eyes and what he actually heard with his own ears.”
Huh? Bob “Stop Lying About My Record” Dole smearing?
Zahn did not make so bold as to ask what on earth the man meant. What Dole saw with his own eyes and heard with his own ears in Vietnam? At the 1971 hearing? What?
Zell Miller snarled about the Democrats' “manic obsession to bring down the commander in chief.”
He brought one down himself, declaring that Dwight Eisenhower liberated southern Korea. Doesn't he know that nowadays everybody's supposed to wrap Harry Truman in a big, fat, gooey bipartisan embrace?
He ushered in another guest appearance with the obligatory canard, “As a war protestor, Kerry blamed our military.”
And not to be outdone by anyone on Night 3, not even the vice president of the United States himself, Miller spat out the phrase “20 years of votes” (Kerry, against weapons) as if what he really wanted to bark out -- really, really wanted -- was “20 years of treason.”
In case you were wondering what a speaker would have to do to cross the line and provoke commentators out of their blandness, Miller answered the question. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews had been passing out kudos for so-so speeches all week (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudy Giuliani), along with the rest of his shall-we-say tipped panel (Joe Scarborough and Jon Meacham for the right, Andrea Mitchell for the center). But in his keynote, Miller lost one marble too many. In a postgame interview, Matthews asked him: “Do you believe that John Kerry and Ted Kennedy really only believe in defending America with spitballs?” By the time the dust had cleared, Miller was… challenging Matthews to a duel. For cutting-edge sharpness, it's about time the Comedy Channel got some competition on cable.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Letters to a Young Activist.