For reasons known only to America’s leading conservative thinkers, it is far more offensive to utter an inconsequential truth than to tell a long series of important falsehoods. Or so we are learning in the wake of the final Presidential debate, as Republicans and their noisemakers proclaim grave indignation over John Kerry’s innocuous reference to the sexual preference of Mary Cheney.
]On the pages of The New York Times, William Safire damns Mr. Kerry for inflicting “the lowest blow” and David Brooks indicts him for using “somebody’s daughter to attack the father and his running mate.” In The Weekly Standard, William Kristol shrieks about the “shameless, ruthless, calculating cruelty” in the Democrat’s “McCarthyite” mention of Ms. Cheney, claiming that it proves he should not be elected President. From print and talk radio and cable television, the furious right-wingers roar in unison, as if Mr. Kerry had exposed a dire family secret and ruined a young woman’s life.
Could this helpless victim possibly be the same Mary Cheney who has been “out” for at least the past five years? Isn’t this the same Ms. Cheney who hired herself in 1999 to the Coors Brewing Company as a professional liaison to the gay community, so that the damaging boycott of Coors beer in gay and lesbian bars might be calmed? Isn’t this the lesbian daughter to whom Dick Cheney referred so proudly in a speech last summer? Isn’t she the Cheney daughter who shows up at public events with her female partner? Isn’t she the daughter whose acceptance by her family was praised during that debate by John Edwards, in a gracious exchange with her father?
No harm was intended or done to Ms. Cheney or her family by Mr. Kerry’s remark. Fake indignation has become a standard feature of post-debate spin by Republicans whenever they feel that their man did poorly. They played the same game on Al Gore in 2000, with considerable help from their press claque, by focusing on minor errors that they transformed into falsehoods. Now they hope that this degrading charade will erase George W. Bush’s inadequate performance at the podium by stirring phony anger over the “lesbian” remark—which scarcely drew any attention in the first flush of Mr. Kerry’s decisive debating victories.
It is remarkable indeed that the Cheney remark could obscure the truly stunning moment in the last debate, when the President claimed that he had never expressed a lack of concern about Osama bin Laden—when the videotape showed that was exactly what he had said two years ago. And it is amazing, too, that the President can get away with denying that he has made any serious mistakes during his first term, when the disastrous errors are so obvious.
But Mr. Bush need not worry that serious scrutiny will be applied to his speeches or utterances. On Oct. 18, in what was dubiously billed by the White House as a “major foreign-policy address,” he said things about his opponent which might more aptly be described by terms like “shameless” and even “McCarthyite.” His “major speech” was nothing more than the same old catalog of misleading charges and plain falsehoods that Republicans have been repeating with increasing shrillness since their national convention.
“Senator Kerry has a record of trying to weaken American intelligence,” said the President, as if the Democrat has spent his career trying to undermine American national security. He cited cuts in funding for intelligence agencies, without mentioning that his own new C.I.A. director, Porter Goss, had voted for bigger cuts as a member of Congress.
“Senator Kerry’s approach would permit a response only after America is hit,” said the President, as if Mr. Kerry had not vowed repeatedly to hunt down the terrorists who continue to threaten us.
“Senator Kerry believes that fighting Zarqawi and other terrorists in Iraq is a diversion from the war on terror,” said the President, as if his opponent had not repeatedly—and at some political cost—made plain his commitment to a stable Iraqi government.
And he repeated the canard from the first debate about the “global test” that would influence Mr. Kerry’s security policy. “As far as I can tell, it comes down to this: Before we act to defend ourselves, he thinks we need permission from foreign capitals,” said the President. That is false, and Mr. Bush knows it. Yet he can say such things with impunity because he also knows that they won’t excite the kind of outrage they deserve.
It isn’t surprising that the President and his surrogates would try to deflect attention from his record with strained and misleading rhetoric. It certainly isn’t surprising that they would try to distract the voters and the press with a bogus “issue” like the “lesbian” flap. It is disappointing that they can engage in such obvious manipulations and distortions with the smug expectation of easy success.