Bush Supporters assault Kerry as Vietnam Showboat

Every rare once in a while, a moment comes along that so

perfectly sums a mind-set, nothing’s left to be said.

Take the other day, when a Reuters correspondent phoned the

headquartersof Bush/Cheney ’04, looking for some info on “job quality”-an

oxymoron for millions since Jan. 20, 2001. Whoever took the call apparently

forgot to punch the hold button, which allowed the reporter to hear Susan

Sheybani, an assistant to campaign spokesman Terry Holt, remark: “Why don’t

they get new jobs if they’re unhappy?-or go on Prozac?”

Informed of the inadvertently public nature of her faux pas, Ms.

Sheybani-whom you can bet has a very nice pill box of her own-said she was

“just kidding.”

You know, like barrel-of-laughs Dick Cheney, explaining why he

secured five deferments to avoid the Vietnam draft: “I had other priorities.”

Or Dubya himself, laying out the perks of being Numero Uno to Bob

Woodward: “I’m the commander-see, I don’t need to explain-I do not need to

explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the

President. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I

don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

Savor these moments, friends, because mirth will be in short

supply the next three months. Now that the Boston Happy Days are over-the ones

that bored Maureen Dowd by being, well, so happy -the

dirty stuff’s about to begin.

It’s started already, in fact. John Kerry hadn’t even begun his

acceptance speech (darned good one, too, according to the undecideds who swung

to Mr. Kerry in Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s focus group) when Matt Drudge

was trumpeting that the bullet splashes in the film introducing him were short

rounds aimed at somebody else’s boat. (The film never claimed otherwise.)

Walter Winchell reincarnate followed that up with a snippet from an upcoming

“bombshell book” ( Unfit For Command:

Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry ), co-authored by John E.

O’Neill, who skippered Mr. Kerry’s craft, after he returned stateside. Mr.

O’Neill, a member of the Bush-supporting “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,”

writes: “Kerry would revisit ambush locations for reenacting combat scenes where

he would portray the hero, catching it all on film. Kerry would take movies of

himself walking around in combat gear, sometimes dressed as an infantryman

walking resolutely through the terrain. He even filmed mock interviews of

himself narrating his exploits. A joke circulated among Swiftees was that Kerry

left Vietnam early not because he received three Purple Hearts, but because he

had recorded enough film of himself to take home for his planned political

campaigns.” (A spokesman for Mr. Kerry denied any “re-enactments,” and many in

Vietnam were camera-equipped, including your correspondent, who has snaps of

splashes directed at the boat he was aboard-as does most everyone who enjoyed

similar cruises.)

These are only the opening shots. For that, you can take the word

of punditry Prince of Darkness Bob Novak, who for some reason has yet to be

called before the federal grand jury looking into who blew Valerie Plame’s

C.I.A. cover. “Brutish combat” is in the cards the next 90 days, his column

forecasts, both over what Mr. Kerry did and didn’t do in Vietnam, and his

leadership in the anti-war movement afterward. Or as the more adorable Pat

Buchanan put it on MSNBC during the convention, “Look forward to the Guns of

August.”

A taste of what’s in store for Mr. Kerry comes from journalist

Alexander Cockburn, whose politics tend to the neo-Stalinist. Writing in the

Web journal CounterPunch , Mr.

Cockburn and co-author Jeffrey St. Clair allege that while in command of his

Swift boat, then Lt. Kerry aided and abetted myriad atrocities, large and

small. To buttress their case, they quote Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, commander of

U.S. naval forces in Vietnam: “We had virtually to straightjacket him” in order

to prevent even greater offing of civilians. The admiral, who subsequently

became Chief of Naval Operations, is further cited as being of the opinion that

Mr. Kerry’s service “would haunt him if he were ever on the national stage.”

Sounds damning-till you know the following: “Bud” Zumwalt is

conveniently deceased (as is his veteran son from cancer, thanks to the Agent

Orange spread willy-nilly). The admiral’s remarks were supposedly made to a

college professor 30 years ago. And Zumwalt’s credibility-as your correspondent

can attest, from a journalistic encounter round about the time Mr. Kerry was

plying the muddy waters of the Mekong Delta-ain’t unalloyed sterling. (Of the

details, suffice to say that the admiral said he’d hand over his letter of

resignation were an acutely embarrassing story involving a wayward patrol boat

proved true; further reporting efforts thereupon ceased; and when official

facts emerged years later, yours truly had cause to regret not taking up his

offer.)

Vietnam, in any event, will only be one front in a much broader

assault. Dubya’s handlers promise a scorching appraisal of Mr. Kerry’s Senate

record. Given that Mr. Kerry himself kissed off his 20 years in that august

body with a total of 73 words in a 5,000-word acceptance speech, this seems

fertile ground-but for one question: Compared to whom? John F. Kennedy? Quick,

name one accomplishment he racked up as Senator. (Ditto, Richard Nixon.)

Only at gathering girlfriends was young Jack indisputably

prodigious-and if the right-wing press is any guide, Bush/Cheney ’04 surrogates

could soon be claiming that Mr. Kerry aped his hero while married to first

wife, Julia Thorne. Last week, The Boston

Herald stated as all but incontrovertible that Mr. Kerry had an affair with

Cambridge District Court presiding justice Roanne Sragow while the two were

Boston law partners-prior to Mr. Kerry’s legal separation from the emotionally

troubled Ms. Thorne. The New York Post

promptly bannered the story on Page Six, salting its account with citations

from that paragon of reliability, The

National Enquirer . ( The Enquirer

has also been claiming that there’s a new notch on Bill Clinton’s belt, a rich

Westchester divorcée. But-good news for Mr. Kerry-no one seems to care.)

Karl Rove ought to tread carefully, though, because two can play

the smear game. Ever since the 2000 election, reporters have been nosing into

less than savory episodes in Mr. Bush’s wastrel days, including a purported

incident that, if true (no one’s nailed it yet, and odds are no one will),

could make the President about as popular with his base as Harvey Fierstein

announcing nuptials. Kitty Kelley’s forthcoming tome on the family Bush is also

said to be etched with nitroglycerine-though how much combustible material sees

print depends on the lawyers.

Maybe the Bush forces should stick to massaging the terrorism

news. Howard Dean has half-hinted that that may be the case with the latest and

scariest of Tom Ridge’s umpteen warnings. Coming in the immediate afterglow of

the Democratic Convention, the timing is certainly fortuitous for Mr. Bush,

whose leadership the empty-suit Homeland Security chief went out of his way to

credit for the “new” intelligence. (The bulk of which turns out to be three or

four years old.) One can’t help but wonder, too, if the steadfastness of

Citigroup food-court workers in the face of Al Qaeda really and truly hinged on

a surprise drop-in by First Lady Laura and her escorts, George Pataki and Mike

Bloomberg. (Nice, though, that the cameras happened to come along.)

Apart from an actual terrorist attack, a prospect that already

has partisans figuring the calculus between votes lost and number and location

of casualties caused (a few hundred in a Kansas City shopping mall: survivable;

a packed Grand Central gone: not), the Kerry camp’s biggest worry is Bush &

Co. pulling Osama out of the hat. A week before the Democratic convention, The New Republic reported that the

administration was muscling Pakistan to produce a “high-value” terrorist

capture during the first three days of the Kerry coronation. Few gave the story

much credence. Until last Thursday, that is-the closing day of the convention

and right on the button by South Asia standards-when Pakistan announced the

apprehension of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a senior Al Qaeda operative wanted for

the 1998 U.S. embassies bombings in Africa that killed hundreds. Price tag on

his F.B.I. “Most Wanted” head: $25 million.

Needless to say, it was mere coincidence.

Whether our pals in Islamabad are capable of pulling off an even

glitzier stunt between now and Election Day, there’s no way of telling. But

they’re nothing if not resourceful. Thanks to a Pakistani scientist, “axis of

evil” stalwart North Korea knows all it needs to about assembling nuclear tinker-toys.

Courtesy of another Pakistani scientist, Osama himself received two days of

briefings on the technical ins and outs of W.M.D.’s shortly before 9/11. And

the members of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the guys leading

the Osama bin Laden hunt? They used to be best friends with the Taliban (whose

leader we haven’t caught, either)-and many of them still are.

If Pakistan comes up short, and all else fails for Mr. Bush (who

must be getting a little sweaty about the G.D.P., off by nearly a point, to

judge from his unaccustomed tie-less, short-sleeved appearances before

pre-screened audiences), hope’s not lost: Somebody’s still gotta count the

votes.

In Democratic counties in

Florida, that task will fall to paper-trail-free “touch-screen” machines, which

First Brother Jeb assures will function as flawlessly as the HAL 9000-never

mind that they haven’t so far, or that Miami officials just found the disks

with the 2002 gubernatorial primary results; they’d been thought lost in two

computer crashes. The state’s G.O.P., which knows better, has urged the

faithful to vote absentee, via paper ballot. “The liberal Democrats have

already begun their attacks and the new electronic voting machines do not have

a paper ballot in case of a recount,” says a glossy party mailer featuring a

picture of Dubya flashing the thumbs-up. “Make sure your vote counts. Order

your absentee ballot today.” Thirty-five thousand have done so in Miami–Dade

County alone.

Florida’s not the only place brimming with fraud potential. In The Nation , liberal lion Ronnie Dugger

notes that 98 million Americans-five out of six who’ll be going to the

polls-will have their votes recorded by one computer contraption or another,

programmed by unidentified minions mainly in the employ of four private corporations,

none of which would mind additional tax breaks.

So keep your chin up, Ms. Dowd. Interesting times are on the way.