Why Is Kerry Behind? Bush Bunch Bloodying His Aquiline Nose

Once upon a time, Republicans were pretty much like everybody else. Only richer.

The dads ran plants and offices; were doctors and lawyers and businessmen; belonged to Kiwanis and Rotary; groused about social programs and the taxes they had to pay to support them; played golf at nice country clubs and bought Buicks every other year.

The moms oversaw spotless suburban houses, wore gloves and went to teas; belonged to the P.T.A., the Ladies Auxiliary and the garden club; volunteered at the local hospital and mounted can drives for the underprivileged; and never, ever questioned that father really did know best.

They were salts-of-the earth who attended the Episcopal or Presbyterian church every Sunday; wanted a strong defense so the country would never have to go to war unless somebody bombed Pearl Harbor; and asked of government only that it leave them alone. Folks, in short, like Gerald and Betty Ford. A little dull, maybe, but O.K.

“Conservative” wasn’t a word heard very often back then-and certainly not “right-wing,” an appellation applied only to “kooks” such as the John Birch Society (it’s still in business, by the by, battling to get the U.S. out of the U.N., and “Our Canal” back from Panama). Except about Communists and Franklin D. Roosevelt and unions, Republicans-even “rock-ribbed,” the most demonstrative G.O.P.-registered ever got describing themselves-lacked rabidity in their DNA. That included feelings about “social issues.” Because in the good old days, there weren’t any. Everyone, including homosexuals and “Negroes,” knew their place.

Somewhere along the line, all this got stood on its noggin, and on account of Playboy magazine and Vietnam and Betty Friedan and civil rights and a lot of other well-chronicled reasons (not least Jesus, who made a huge comeback), Republicans-those setting the party’s course, anyway-became more Tom DeLay than Jerry Ford.

Which is why John Kerry suddenly finds himself trailing George W. Bush.

Candidate beau ideal, Mr. Kerry is not, as privately admitted by his ever-changing cast of handlers-which, with the recent addition of Joe Lockhart as press secretary, is looking more and more like Clinton Redux, less and less like Kennedy Restoration. Still, you’d think he’d be having a better time of it, given the shape the country’s in. Take last week’s Census Bureau report: It found 35.9 million Americans-12.9 million of them children-living in poverty (up four million from when Bill moved to Chappaqua); 45 million without health insurance (an increase of 1.5 million since the start of Dubya’s “corner turn”); and average family income declining since the supposed end of the supposedly tax-cut-killed recession. The wealthiest Americans, however, have been doing swell; their income’s gone up. As for the party registration of most of these fortunates, take a guess.

Add two million jobs lost during Mr. Bush’s tenure (the first time that’s happened since a Republican President named Hoover); an annual budget deficit running roundabout half a trillion; Iraq K.I.A.’s nearing the magic 1,000 mark; Osama still on the loose; the Bill of Rights going piecemeal into the toilet; and basically the whole world hating us-suck on that, and there seems ample cause for the squire of Crawford, Tex., to be preparing for brush-cutting full-time.

Instead, it’s Democrats who are despairing.

Is Karl Rove really that smart?

John Kerry really that awful?

Or is something else at work-an X-factor that has to do with the nature of the two major political parties, and the differing lengths to which they will (and will not) go to win elections?

Your correspondent-who admits to secretly voting for Republicans now and again; regularly having them at his dinner table; and, in the event of desert-island stranding, vastly preferring the company of Pat Buchanan over Michael Moore-selects Door No. 3.

The evidence is a matter of public record, starting with Richard Nixon. He’s the President, you’ll recall, who thought it a fine idea to enhance his re-election chances by breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, and having his elves spread false stories to take his most dangerous opponent-reliable Ed Muskie of Maine-out of the race.

More recently, we’ve had a Republican Congress and a Republican “Independent” Prosecutor doing their utmost to remove from office the “illegitimate” Democratic President, Bill Clinton. Since details remain fresh, we’ll skip that episode, save to note that when Bill was running in 1992, it was inside-the-Beltway common knowledge that, in the marital extracurriculars department, his opponent (Dubya’s dad) inhabited a rather roomy glass house. Mention by Democrats of same: None.

Then we come to 2000, when Dubya-having attained the needed stepping stone with the assist of stories planted in East Texas that Ann Richards and some of her staff were gay (see Tim Grieve’s account in Salon last week)-secured election to the Presidency in unusual fashion. Which is to say, dubious vote-counting in kid brother’s Florida certified by the co-chair of his state campaign and, subsequently, five Republican-appointed members of the U.S. Supreme Court. And oh yes: systematic, massive disenfranchisement of minorities, en route.

This suggests that the folks currently gathered at Madison Square Garden play by, shall we say, different rules.

John Kerry is the latest to make that discovery. His encounter with the Republican-financed, -advised and God-knows-what-else “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” has holed his campaign beneath the waterline. Should the outcome gang agley in November, it may be remembered like Ed Muskie’s crying in the snows of New Hampshire because of libels lodged against his wife-the moment that changed everything.

Needless to say, Mr. Kerry, rather than Mr. Bush, is catching most of the press blame. Had he not made such a big deal of his Vietnam service, it’s been endlessly written, he wouldn’t have set himself up for such attacks. Never mind that official naval records show the Swiftees’ credibility on a par with the Flat Earth Society. And never mind-as John Podesta recently pointed out-that the only metal left in George Bush by his mysteriously truncated National Guard service (funny about those disappearing records) were a couple of fillings. The tall fella with the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts-he’s the screw-up. Tim O’Brien, the best-selling novelist and Vietnam combat infantryman, came up with the perfect description of this state of affairs the other day on NPR: “Orwellian.”

While we’re on the subject of war records, how ’bout Bob Dole’s? All that’s widely known about his World War II service is that it concluded shortly before the end of European hostilities with a grievous wound that rendered his right arm useless, and was the foundation of a long, ferociously partisan political career. That, and its 1996 employment by Republicans as a cudgel against “draft-dodging” Bill. (Republicans merely have “other priorities.”)

Mr. Dole was lauded for his service and suffering during that election-despite his contemptible branding of World Wars I, II, Korea and Vietnam as “Democrat wars.” Today, John Kerry keeps mum about Mr. Dole’s wartime exploits as well-despite the undermining of his own, considerably more decorated service by Mr. Dole, who’s endorsed the Swiftees’ discredited charges; trivialized Mr. Kerry’s wounds as “superficial”; grotesquely misstated how he incurred them; and finished up by suggesting that the Democratic nominee owed an apology to his fellow 2.5 million Vietnam veterans for having the temerity to speak out against the war that killed 58,000 of them.

To judge from the polls, many took his word as gospel.

The Swiftees must be especially grateful. Awash with cash since Mr. Dole’s appearance, they’re launching a $400,000 TV buy in Florida, the New York Post gleefully reports; are going national with $800,000 worth of cable commercials; and have a brand-new ad-this one focusing on Mr. Kerry’s 1971 medals toss-set to greet him in Nashville, where he’s addressing the American Legion.

So, in the interests of equal time (the networks’ excuse for spreading Swift Boat effluent), here’s the skinny about Second Lieutenant Dole, courtesy of Robert B. Ellis, a former C.I.A. officer and Bronze Star–winning member of Mr. Dole’s division (10th Mountain) during the thick of the Italian campaign. His report appeared in The Nation eight years ago.

For starters, Mr. Dole was Bill Clinton’s near-equal at avoiding harm’s way. This was initially accomplished by enrolling in the Army’s Enlisted Reserve Corps-a move that allowed him to complete his sophomore year at Kansas. Then, after another year and a half of U.S.-based training, he arrived in Europe. There, according to a Nation report by David Corn and Paul Schemm, he tried to get himself assigned to an Army Sports unit based in Rome. Unsuccessful, he reported for duty as a replacement looie in a combat outfit in February 1945. Seven fairly uneventful weeks later, he sustained the wound that put him into a V.A. hospital for years of agonizing recuperation. For which the nation owes him unstinting sympathy and kudos.

Some of his decorations may engender different emotion, however.

According to G.O.P. campaign literature in 1996, Mr. Dole holds two Bronze Stars for heroism, one for the action that nearly killed him. The other? Campaign literature doesn’t say how he acquired it, but apparently it came via a 1947 decision to award the Bronze Star to every G.I. who’d been in combat.

Mr. Dole also received two Purple Hearts. But on his official Web site, the circumstances and severity of the first is unmentioned. Understandably, it turns out.

For Mr. Dole suffered his first wound-from shrapnel, the same substance that wounded John Kerry on two, weeks-apart occasions-not from enemy fire (a Purple Heart pre-requisite), but from errantly tossing his own grenade, which apparently hit a tree. In any event, it bounced back, sending a sliver of metal into his leg (and dinging several of his buddies in the bargain). Described as “the sort of injury the Army patched up with Mercurochrome,” the wounding kept Mr. Dole off the line exactly one day.

From whence did Mr. Ellis collect such embarrassing intelligence, including the “Mercurochrome” bit? Unlimited Partners (1988)-the joint autobiography of Bob and Elizabeth Dole.

But you can’t blame Bob for selective memory while gut-shooting Mr. Kerry. He’s only hewing to plans almost assuredly drafted by Karl Rove, who’s also doubtless familiar with (if not the author of) First Brother Jeb’s preparations for Florida: The Sequel. The installation in the state’s most heavily Democratic counties of “touch-screen” voting machines (the gizmos that leave no paper trail and don’t record 1 percent of ballots cast), Kerry Watch told you about a few weeks ago. Ditto, the “accident” that failed to cleanse the registration rolls of Republican-voting Cuban felons-but worked flawlessly getting rid of Democratic-voting black ones. Well, there’ve been further developments. Notably, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote last month, officers of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement-an agency that reports to Jeb-going into the homes of elderly black voters in Orlando, supposedly to investigate allegations of voter fraud during the city’s March mayoral election. Interviewed by Mr. Herbert, a spokesman for the younger Bush’s cops refused to divulge what “criminal activity” bought on the intimidating visits to elderly African-Americans, and claimed that those grilled had merely been selected at “random.”

Sure. And snow is in the forecast for Tallahassee next week.

Elsewhere, the tactics vary, but the intent’s the same.

One of a ton of examples: For months, FactCheck.org has been looking into two messages circulating on the Internet. One claims that Mr. Kerry and his wife own 32 Heinz factories in Europe and 18 in Asia and the Pacific, which have cost “hundreds” of American jobs and brought “millions” to the Kerrys from cheap, overseas labor. “If you are reading [this] in English,” it concludes, “thank a soldier.”

The truth, according to the H.J. Heinz Company, is that neither John Kerry nor Teresa Heinz Kerry own any factories anywhere; do not sit on the company’s board; and play zero role in its operations. All they know about ketchup and pickles, in other words, is how they taste.

The second serving of disinformation is even more toxic. It states that Teresa gave $4 million to a foundation, the Tides Center, which used it to finance “radical” groups, including one “whose leaders are known to have close ties to the terrorist group, Hamas,” and another which “has offered to defend Saddam Hussein when he’s tried.” The Heinz Endowments deny such contributions, and are backed up by forms the law requires to be filed with the Internal Revenue Service. So where does the money funneled to the Tides Center actually go? To support projects like “bike-to-work week” in Pittsburgh.

What’s intriguing about this message, apart from its utter scurrility, is the source that inspired it: an article in the right-wing Pittsburgh Tribune-Review . Sound familiar? That’s the paper that employs the reporter Teresa told to “shove it” at the Democratic Convention. And whom, you may wonder, is the publisher of the Tribune-Review ? Richard Mellon Scaife-the Republican billionaire who financed David Brock’s since-recanted smears of Bill Clinton and Anita Hill.

If you have stomach for more of this stuff, click the Web site of “Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry,” whose leader, Ted Sampley, made a name for himself in 1992 by faking a photograph of Mr. Kerry shooting an American M.I.A. The VVAJK now serves up eye-widening items about “radical, hippie-like” John’s early days. Such as his “betrayal of American prisoners of war” and his “organizing opposition in the United States against the efforts of his former buddies still ducking Communist bullets.” He also “advocated the Communist line” while serving as a shill for the Viet Cong, in case you didn’t know. That is, when he was not “rubbing shoulders with Hanoi Jane Fonda.” Or helping cook up plots to assassinate U.S. Senators.

Should Vietnam weary you (as it does yours truly, who happened to be there, unlike most of Mr. Kerry’s press critics), check out the right-wing Boston Herald for “steamy tales” of the “Senator’s secret love”-when he was single-by ex-girlfriend Lee Whitnum, writer and former Harvard student. She’ll tell you what a cad Kerry was. Wouldn’t take her on a date. Not a single dinner or movie. Wouldn’t be seen in public with her, matter of fact-much less marry her, which is why she finally dumped him, even though he whispered to her in French- French! -during “intimate nights” at his Back Bay pad. “That man broke my heart,” says Ms. Whitnum, who told the BBC she’d hoped her novelized revelations ( Hedge Fund Mistress ) would enable her to “sell some books, buy a house, not have to spend the next 20 years living in a windowless cube … living paycheck-to-paycheck.” But those aspirations, like dreams of being Mrs. Kerry, have come to naught, and Ms. Whitnum now lives in Indiana. (She’s still going to vote for him, however.)

Or you can look up the transcript of a Bush/Cheney ’04 press conference a few weeks back starring Senators Trent Lott and Gordon Smith, who denounced Mr. Kerry for supporting cloning. Thanks to Mr. Kerry, said Senator Smith, there is “little way to stop us from going down the path of creating laboratory body farms.”

Only thing left out: Mr. Kerry supports the therapeutic cloning of stem-cell research-a position, Wired News notes, shared by such notorious organizations as the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences.

So the Republican campaign goes these days, to the spinning of Ike and Ronnie in their tombs.

Don’t misunderstand: It’s not that the tyros of George W. Bush’s re-cast of Abe Lincoln’s party are against elections. (Not yet, at least.)

It’s competing decently they can’t abide.