Around about the third week of the “Swift”-boat controversy, commentators began to note, in a tone of disapproving sadness, that the firestorm created by the accusations against John Kerry proved that three decades later, the nation was still hopelessly divided over the Vietnam War. David Broder of The Washington Post kicked things off: “Will we ever recover from the 1960s?” his August 24 column began. He went on to reiterate some of the high-water marks of our cultural divide, noting that the “ferocity” of the clash over Kerry's war record and 1971 anti-war Senate testimony “is explainable only as the latest outburst of a battle that has been going on now for more than three decades.”
Broder's column, of course, was picked up by many newspapers around the country. Over the next few days, various second-tier newspapers trotted out their Frank Rich manqués to register similar observations. Cable-television discussions, too, fastened on to the idea. The (usually) unspoken theme of all such rhetorical interventions was clear: America remains riven by two warring interpretations of the legacy of the 1960s in general and of Vietnam in particular, and, for this regrettable state of affairs, both sides are to blame.
It's an alluring story line. And there is some truth to it. It is human nature that people cling to youth, that the world is somehow never better than it was when they were 20 or 24. Broder is completely right in his implicit suggestion that the people who came of age in the 1960s cling to their youths perhaps more tenaciously than people of other generations. And liberals of that era -- who, after all, were ascendant -- probably do romanticize the era more than their conservative counterparts, besotted with the memory of the power and influence over the political culture that they once had but no longer enjoy.
But the story line overlooks an important fact, a fact that the right, with an assist from an astoundingly complacent media, has successfully obscured in this campaign. And that fact is this: America is not -- emphatically not -- divided over Vietnam.
The Gallup Organization has taken care to track American public opinion on this question every few years since the Vietnam War ended. The results are beyond dispute. By overwhelming margins, Americans have always believed -- and continue to believe -- that the Vietnamese conflict was wrong. Gallup has asked two questions over the years. First, did the United States make “a mistake in sending troops to fight in Vietnam, or not”? Second, was the war (and were other wars in U.S. history) “just” or “unjust”? In both cases, the pro-war position comes up very short. Gallup began asking a version of the “mistake” question in 1965. The first majority calling the war a mistake appeared in August 1968, after the Tet Offensive and Walter Cronkite's famous anti-war editorial at the end of his newscast on the night of February 27 of that year. After the war's 1975 conclusion, Gallup has asked the question five times, in 1985, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 2000. And all five times -- over that 15-year period that saw vast social change, the raging of the culture wars, and dramatic shifts to the right in American public opinion on several issues -- respondents were consistent in calling the war a mistake by a margin of more than 2 to 1: by 74 percent to 22 percent in 1990, for example, and by 69 percent to 24 percent in 2000.
Similarly, vast majorities continue to call the war “unjust.” While substantial majorities retrospectively support World War II (90 percent), the Korean War (61 percent), and the Gulf War (66 percent), fully 68 percent of Gallup respondents in 1990 considered the Vietnam War unjust, and 25 percent thought it just. Four years later, the numbers were 71 percent to 23 percent. Only in 2004 -- after September 11, with American soldiers engaged in combat on two fronts, and with martial rhetoric from the incumbent administration a daily feature of national life -- did the numbers change. But even then, they changed just a little: 62 percent still consider Vietnam unjust, while 33 percent defend it.
It's at least very interesting and at most rather remarkable that Americans, who tend to forgive their country pretty much everything on the matter of how it conducts its global affairs, have settled so firmly into the conviction that their nation was so wrong about something so important. Another 1995 Gallup question even found a majority of 52 percent agreeing with the assertion that the war was “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” as opposed to the 43 percent who called it a “well-intentioned mistake.” And while it can be argued that the 33 percent of pro-Vietnam respondents in the 2004 poll still represents a decent chunk of the population, it's also the case than in electoral terms, 33 percent constitutes a fractional minority. The similar percentage of Americans that opposed the Iraq War in the early months of 2003 was uniformly written off by the media as marginal, disgruntled, and unimportant. So public opinion on this question couldn't be clearer. There is no great Vietnam divide. Americans are more divided over carbohydrates than they are over Vietnam.
But the minority, as we have recently learned, is a voluble one.
It was said over the summer -- mostly by right-wing commentators, but the line was parroted by many a mainstream talking head -- that Kerry “opened himself up” to scrutiny of his service in Vietnam and his 1971 Senate testimony by so emphasizing the war during the Democratic convention. Again, it's a contention made with some apparent justification. I watched that Thursday night as the crewmates were paraded onto the stage, as the nominee began his speech with that too-earnest salute, and as he delivered remarks that used his service record as their leitmotif, and wondered, but what about the future? The Democrats finally had a warrior on their hands, and apparently they were going to make the most of it. (It is ironic, too, that an arena full of Democrats cheered wildly for the guy who shot up Charlie.)
But, again, just like the story line about a nation still divided over Vietnam, this criticism of Kerry is fundamentally at odds with the facts. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began organizing themselves long before the Democratic convention. In Salon, Joe Conason reported that John O'Neill, the group's most public member, first approached Dallas-based public-relations consultant Merrie Spaeth in late 2003 or early 2004. At that juncture, Spaeth turned O'Neill away, saying that “he sounded like a crazed extremist” and advising him to “button his lip” and stay out of the limelight.
(Spaeth has a fascinating history of her own. Her participation in the 2000 Bush campaign's smearing of John McCain, which included a particularly despicable charge that he cooperated with the Viet Cong while held as a prisoner of war, and her work for Kenneth Starr in 1998 are now well-known. Less so is the fact that she was, arguably, present at the creation of conservative talk radio, when New York station WMCA-AM, which at one time had had the joyful task of introducing New York teens to the Beatles and the Stones, switched to a conservative-leaning talk format in the mid-1970s, with Spaeth as one of its hosts. Before that, and to my eternal chagrin, she played a charming adolescent in George Roy Hill's rich and touching 1964 film, The World of Henry Orient, in which her character encouraged her pre-teen coeval's schoolgirl crush on a famous concert pianist, Orient. In other words, she played the enabler of a fantasist.)
What changed, between that winter and this past May, when Spaeth arranged the Washington press conference at which the Swift-boat group unveiled itself? Between the time when Roy Hoffman, less well-known than O'Neill but every bit as central to the Swift-boat group's formation, went from praising Kerry as “a good man” in 2003 to playing a lead role in the attacks? One thing that changed was that Kerry went from being an also-ran to being the putative nominee. And other things may have. All parties swear that there were no conversations between anyone associated with the Swift-boat group and presidential adviser Karl Rove (or anyone in the White House or on the Bush campaign). No one has been able to prove any such links, and, of course, it's unlikely that anyone ever will. But the attacks on Kerry, to any student of Rove's way of doing things, look awfully familiar.
In 1985, write James Moore and Wayne Slater in their biography of Rove, Bush's Brain, Rove sat down and wrote a strategy memo for Bill Clements, who had been the first Republican in a century to be elected governor of Texas before losing his re-election bid. Rove suggested ways of softening Clements' image; then, he quoted Napoleon: “The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack.” He highlighted the last phrase for emphasis. Later, when Clements was running (successfully) against Democrat Mark White, Rove wrote that “anti-White messages are more important than positive Clements messages. Attack. Attack. Attack.” The modus operandi was simple and admittedly inventive: Identify the opponent's strength, not his weakness; attack the strength, turning a story line that was once clear into a muddle of unprovables; make the election a referendum on the other person's “character.” If the savaging could be tied to certain hot-button issues, so much the better. It's an MO that John McCain knows all too well -- or used to.
Incidentally, on the topic of Rove and the Vietnam War, Moore and Slater report that, strangely enough, the Bush consigliere opposed the war. Or at least this young, committed conservative -- who as fate had it turned 18 on Christmas Day 1968, a few weeks after John Kerry had taken command of his first Swift boat -- opposed the draft, arguing against compulsory military service in a series of debates at his Olympus High School in Salt Lake City; like his boss, he never quite made it over to Vietnam. He went instead to the University of Utah, where he joined the College Republicans, under whose auspices he conducted, in the summer of 1972 (the season of the Watergate break-in), seminars on effective political espionage. The message wasn't “don't do it.” The message was, “don't get caught.” That year, when he was a candidate for the chairmanship of the College Republican National Committee, he almost was, when some fellow young Republican alerted the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the media to the existence of Rove's seminars. An internal investigation was launched, but the charges were dismissed by the man who then headed the RNC, George Bush Senior. Tellingly, he directed his animus not toward Rove, who had directed the dirty-tricks seminars, but toward Rove's opponent, whom the elder Bush accused (wrongly) of leaking the story to the press. The moral of this Bushian intervention was not lost on the young Rove. He hasn't gotten caught since.
Karl Rove may never have gone to Vietnam, but Campaign '04 is the crossroads at which America's most feral political adviser and its most unpopular and embittering war finally meet. A false cultural narrative -- that the nation is still deeply split over the legacy of Vietnam, with the winking suggestion that said divide is, at bottom, the fault of the liberals like Kerry who opposed the war -- is thus fused to the politics of “rapid and audacious attack.” The narrative, which the mainstream media have been too resolutely lazy to correct (the right wing knows that it can almost always count on this!), has the maddening effect of working against the political side that represents the opinion of the large majority that looks on that war as a mistake. Questions about Vietnam that had appeared to be -- that in fact were -- long since settled to most Americans are suddenly raised anew. Kerry's testimony, which was actually delivered for the purpose of persuading senators to do all they could to end the war as quickly as possible and whose sentiments represented a decisive majority of American public opinion at the time (61 percent against the war and 28 percent in favor, according to a Gallup survey published the month after Kerry's testimony), is twisted and edited to sound like an attack on veterans.
That some veterans were embittered by that testimony is understandable, and that Kerry should have to defend it now is completely appropriate. That's politics. That it should have become a dominating fact of this campaign is scandalous, and it proves the crucial moral lesson of the Swift-boat affair, and of this campaign generally: Conservatives must divide the country to win elections. They must return to Vietnam, again and again. They have to advance contemptible fictions about Kerry's wounds being self-inflicted, so that the fog of doubt can slowly move in over him as it once did Mark White in Texas. They need to stoke their base voters' paranoia with a phony constitutional ban on gay marriage that neither Bush nor Rove has the slightest intention of actually pursuing, and they need to rally those voters to storm the polls to oppose gay marriage–related ballot initiatives in four crucial swing states. They have to keep the 1960s in play because it affords them the stereotypes that they need to win over voters who otherwise would have no truck with their agenda at all. They can't win on their agenda; not enough people support it.
George W. Bush famously claimed that he would be a “uniter, not a divider.” It was already a bit surreal when he said it on the campaign trail in 2000. What Bush was really saying during the 2000 campaign was, “Elect me, and our side won't have to spend eight years attacking and dividing as we did during Bill Clinton's tenure, because we'll be in power.”
But even that hasn't turned out to be. Even power hasn't disturbed the conservative impulse to attack and destroy. If anything, the impulse has been strengthened. The savaging of former Senator Max Cleland. The use of 9-11 to attack any criticism as unpatriotic. The now-forgotten comparison of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle to John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” (a conservative political action committee, in a 2002 flier, called Daschle a “far greater danger” to the republic than Lindh).
This year, in Bush's presence on the campaign trail -- where citizens attending the president's events are forced to sign a piece of paper endorsing his candidacy -- Kerry was once referred to as “Jane Fonda's poster boy,” according to The Washington Post. The uniter-not-divider didn't say a word. One particularly telling exchange, at which Bush's silence spoke volumes, took place in Beaverton, Oregon, on August 13. Readers of liberal blogs will be well familiar with the following exchange, but readers of, say, The New York Times will not, because it didn't appear there (the only major news outlet that ever reported the full exchange was ABC News):
QUESTION: Yes, Mr. President, on behalf of Vietnam veterans—and I served six tours over there—we do support the president. I only have one concern, and that's on the Purple Heart, and that is that there are over 200,000 Vietnam vets who have died from Agent Orange. And no Purple Heart has ever been awarded to a Vietnam veteran because of Agent Orange, because it's never been changed in the regulations. Yet we have a candidate for president out here with two self-inflicted scratches. And I take that as an insult.
BUSH: Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you for your service. Six tours. Whew. That's a lot of tours.
Unifying, isn't it?
These tactics are by now well-established, yet Democrats fall for them every time. They still seem shocked when conservative groups launch personal attacks; even more incredibly, they seem more shocked still when the attacks work.
And make no mistake: These attacks did work, marvelously. They performed exactly the function they were supposed to perform. Kerry came into this campaign with two great advantages over Bush. First, unlike Bush, he had acquitted himself courageously when both were of an age to serve their country in the trenches. Second, unlike Bush, he had not launched a preemptive war under a discredited pretense that turned out to be a disaster. Those advantages could have been significant, even dispositive; but across the summer, they were completely erased. Kerry's national favorable-unfavorable ratings, at 60 percent to 26 percent, according to Gallup in mid-February, when he locked up the Democratic nomination, had fallen by summer's end, according to one poll, into the red zone: 32 percent favorable, 41 percent unfavorable. The polls that came out after the Republican convention, showing that Bush had opened up a lead over Kerry (the margins were arguable; the fact of Bush's momentum was not) were less notable for how much Bush had risen in them when compared with previous polls than for how much Kerry had sunk.
So the attacks worked. And, while the Swift-boat issue per se has run its course in the news cycle, there is little reason to believe that its impact has abated, or will abate right up until election day. Unfit for Command continues to command a high perch on the best-seller lists, and its success will finance plenty enough commercials to run through November 2. The “Swifties,” as Kerry's antagonists were dubbed, were set to release a “documentary,” Stolen Valor, in mid-September, which stands to rake in even more cash. The right-wing slime machine, among other things, is certainly a cash cow.
Most importantly of all, the attacks laid the groundwork for the central argument that Bush and Dick Cheney have been making and will make in the weeks leading up to the election: that Kerry can't be trusted on national security and fighting terrorism. Much as Napoleon recommended, the attacks came in rapid and audacious waves. First wave: the tarring of Kerry as a “flip-flopper,” to establish him in the public mind as unreliable. Second wave: the smear of Kerry's personal heroism, a quintessentially McCarthyite salvo in that it called on Kerry to disprove a negative charge -- to prove, in other words, that he wasn't lying about his Vietnam service -- which is the very definition of McCarthyism. Third wave: the accusation, highly resonant in the post–9-11 age, that Kerry once harmed the American cause during wartime, for the purpose of suggesting that he's capable of doing so again. Fourth wave: the application of these “lessons” of the past to the present world situation, thereby to “prove” that Kerry is unfit to lead the country.
And, emotionally, the entire assault draws its energy from one of the central missions that contemporary conservatism assigns itself: keeping the country divided over the legacy of the 1960s. That the country is not, in fact, divided over that legacy, at least with regard to the Vietnam War, would seem at first blush to be a relevant fact. But facts (especially when the media don't bother to take note of them) are no match for well-financed propaganda (especially when the media give the propaganda extensive coverage). We've fought over Vietnam -- fights always instigated by the right -- in most of our recent presidential elections, and we'll keep fighting over Vietnam for as long as the media are willing to let the right get away with it.
Michael Tomasky is executive editor of The American Prospect.
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