Insincere Smears

Steve Kornacki’s column today pointedly recalls the nasty Republican memes of the 1992 campaign, which sought to instill doubt about Bill Clinton’s patriotism because he had protested the Vietnam War. So desperate were they to retain power that employees of the first Bush administration rifled illegally through Clinton’s passport files.

(That scandal concluded with an ineffectual special-counsel investigation by a highly partisan G.O.P. lawyer.) Flash forward to the affecting moment two weeks ago, when that same George H.W. Bush, now quite old and frail, showed up as an honored guest of his successor at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York.

There was real emotion in the elder Bush’s voice when he talked about his friendship with Clinton, which began in earnest with their fund-raising efforts on behalf of the Katrina and tsunami victims.

Could he honestly become a close friend of a man he thought had dishonored his country “on foreign soil,” the accusation he voiced 16 years ago? John McCain made an appearance at the same event, where he declared himself proud to be Clinton’s friend. Can he really like a guy who escaped the draft and protested the war while he was doing time in the Hanoi Hilton? Sure he does. The Republicans never believed most of what they said about Clinton during the ’92 campaign. Most of their political leaders avoided Vietnam service, too. But Republican presidential candidates have a bad habit of pretending to believe the worst possible things about opponents.

No, McCain isn’t stupid enough to worry whether Barack Obama knew Bill Ayers, like every other politician in Chicago. But he thinks you might be.