Kerry: Slo-Mo on Swifties

By MAUREEN DOWD

The New York Times

August 22, 2004

WASHINGTON - It's easy for the Bushes to stay gallant. They delegate the gutter.

There are always third-party political assassins, ostensibly independent, to do the dynasty wet work.

W.'s old pal and running partner, Lee Atwater, set up the Bush modus operandi: Lay in the weeds while craftily planting plausibly deniable surrogates to slice up your rival.

The New Yorker editor David Remnick, writing in Esquire in 1986, limned the 1980 Congressional race in South Carolina's Second District "between Atwater's man, Republican Floyd Spence, and a Faulknerian figure named Tom Turnipseed At one press briefing, Atwater planted a reporter who rose and said, 'We understand Turnipseed has had psychotic treatment.' Atwater played it cool and refused to comment, but later told the reporters off the record, 'In college I understand he got hooked up to jumper cables.' "

Karl Rove is Atwater's protégé on jumper cable politics.

The weird thing is, given how transparently the Bushes play the game of staying above the fray even as their creepy-crawly surrogates do dishonorable and undignified things, their rivals always seem caught off guard when the third parties show up to rip their throats out.

The phlegmatic Michael Dukakis never knew what hit him with Mr. Atwater's Frankenstein monster Willie Horton coming at him in a third party scare ad and G.O.P. smear leaflets and letters.

John McCain should have known what was coming in South Carolina, but he acted stunned and hurt when he was hit with the Atwater/Rove mud treatment by shadowy Bush supporters.

Just as the Bush campaign dragged out fringe veteran surrogates in South Carolina to slime the former P.O.W. for being antiveteran, now the stomach-turning Swift boat attackers are sliming a war hero as a war criminal.

They started their vengeful and brazen campaign in May, after plotting since w inter. But John Kerry is only now forcefully responding - though he should have had a response ready, since the Nixon tool John O'Neill has dogged him since '71.

Charging on Thursday that Mr. Bush wants the Swift boat sleazoids "to do his dirty work," Mr. Kerry reached for yet another Vietnam reference and water metaphor: "When you're under attack, the best thing to do is turn your boat into the attack."

The Skipper would do well to get a swifter boat. How pathetic is it that he's playing defense on Vietnam when W. didn't even serve?

Bill Clinton implied two weeks ago that Mr. Kerry was acting sluggish. "Whenever they hit me, I hit 'em back," he told Jon Stewart. "And whenever they came up with a charge I didn't believe was true, I answered back."

Reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post last week made it clear that the vile Swift boaters have told wildly varying accounts, sometimes supportive of Mr. Kerry.

The Times revealed that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth - is that like the administration's Clear Skies Act for spewing pollution? - has a trellis of ties to Karl Rove, the Bush family and Bush supporters. "A Texas publicist who once helped prepare Mr. Bush's father for his debate when he was running for vice president provided them with strategic advice," Kate Zernike and Jim Rutenberg wrote. Indeed, it was the same woman who worked for a third party group that slimed Mr. McCain on the environment in the 2000 primaries.

And the group's ad was produced by the Dukakis tank ad wizards.

The Kerry camp knows the Swift boat snipers are hurting the Democrat and fears the Bush oppo campaign will soon move from tarnishing Mr. Kerry's war record to dwell on his days as a shaggy-haired antiwar spokesman. The White House must tear down his heroism before it can tear down his patriotism.

Meanwhile, the Bush crew is shamelessly doing to Mr. Kerry what it once did to Mr. McCain: suggesting that the decorated Vietnam vet has snakes in his head and a temperament problem. "Senator Kerry appears to have lost his cool," Scott McClellan told reporters in Crawford on Friday. And the Bush campaign chairman, Marc Racicot, said on CNN that Mr. Kerry looked "wild-eyed" responding to Swift boat muck.

It makes sense for W. to use surrogates to do his fighting, just as he did when he slid out of Vietnam and just as he did when he sent our troops to fight his administration's misbegotten vanity war in Iraq.