Washing Away the Mud

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

September 23, 2994

What I found most dispiriting over the last month of politicking was the sight of two senior statesmen in the Republican Party - yes, I mean you, George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole - climbing on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth bandwagon in its campaign to turn Mr. Kerry from war hero to craven braggart.

Both former President Bush and Mr. Dole are honorable. And Mr. Bush has personal knowledge of such smears. The bomber Mr. Bush piloted was shot down in 1944. He bailed out, but the two others in the plane, Ted White and John Delaney, were killed.

Then in the 1988 campaign, a tail-gunner on another plane on the same bombing mission accused Mr. Bush of having been a coward and causing Mr. White's and Mr. Delaney's deaths. A couple of others on the mission backed this accusation, claiming that Mr. Bush could have tried a water landing rather than consigning the others to their deaths.

The accusations were rebutted by other witnesses, however, and journalists mostly shied away from them. Michael Dukakis dismissed the story, and few voters knew about the smear.

These days, though, accusations that have even less evidence behind them - that Mr. Kerry connived his way into getting medals he did not deserve - are widely aired and believed. A Times/CBS poll found that more than 60 percent of the respondents said Mr. Kerry is hiding something or mostly lying about Vietnam.

That's not a problem just for Mr. Kerry, but for the integrity of our political process. As I wrote in my last column, a careful look at Mr. Kerry's war record suggests that he stretched the truth here and there, but he served with immense courage - and he deserved all his medals.

Every single enlisted man who served with Mr. Kerry on his boats at the time he earned his Purple Hearts and Silver and Bronze Stars say the medals were all deserved, and they are all supporting his candidacy.

True, Democrats have also engaged in below-the-belt attacks. Some of "Fahrenheit 9/11," the Michael Moore film, was the liberal equivalent of the anti-Kerry smears. Its innuendos implying that Mr. Bush arranged the war in Afghanistan so backers could profit from an oil pipeline were appalling.

But I, along with some others, immediately complained about "Fahrenheit 9/11." Aside from John McCain, where are the sensible conservatives? Why don't they denounce the Swift Boat Veterans' attacks? And why doesn't President Bush condemn those attacks, showing the kind of integrity that Mr. Dukakis showed?

The news media also need to think through this issue, for we're being manipulated. I remember rumors about Mr. Bush in the 2000 campaign that were well known among journalists, but they never saw the light of print because we could not substantiate them. Every major candidate draws scurrilous charges, but responsible journalists - quite rightly - refuse to report unsubstantiated accusations of things like love children, drug dealing or mistresses. As CBS has found, to its chagrin, extraordinary charges require extraordinary proof.

Even though the Swift Boat Veterans' accusations are unsubstantiated, wealthy Bush supporters have turned them into campaign ads - and the press has often covered the result like a sporting event, rather than trying to find the truth. For voters who question both sides' rhetorical barbs, I recommend www.factcheck.org.

The only hope for stopping the mudslinging is if well-meaning people try to police their own side.

If they're intellectually consistent, Democrats will speak out not only against the Swift Boat Veterans but also against Mr. Kerry's demagoguery on trade, like his suggestion that outsourcing is the result of Mr. Bush's economic policies. Trade demagoguery may not be as felonious as an assault on a war hero's character, but it harms America by undermining support for free trade.

I'm afraid that the dishonesty of politics has infected all of us if we're so partisan that we're willing to point out only the sins of the other side. Intellectual consistency requires a tough look first at one's own shortcomings. So Republicans should be denouncing the smear against Mr. Kerry's war record, and Democrats should be denouncing their candidate's protectionist tone on trade.

In the spirit of taking a tough look at one's own shortcomings: on Saturday, I referred to William Rood as a witness for Mr. Kerry's Silver Star incident. It was the Bronze Star episode that he saw. Mea culpa.