Almost a year ago, on the second anniversary of 9/11, I predicted "an ugly, bitter campaign - probably the nastiest of modern American history." The reasons I gave then still apply. President Bush has no positive achievements to run on. Yet his inner circle cannot afford to see him lose: if he does, the shroud of secrecy will be lifted, and the public will learn the truth about cooked intelligence, profiteering, politicization of homeland security and more.
But recent attacks on John Kerry have surpassed even my expectations. There's no mystery why. Mr. Kerry isn't just a Democrat who might win: his life story challenges Mr. Bush's attempts to confuse tough-guy poses with heroism, and bombast with patriotism.
One of the wonders of recent American politics has been the ability of Mr. Bush and his supporters to wrap their partisanship in the flag. Through innuendo and direct attacks by surrogates, men who assiduously avoided service in Vietnam, like Dick Cheney (five deferments), John Ashcroft (seven deferments) and George Bush (a comfy spot in the National Guard, and a mysterious gap in his records), have questioned the patriotism of men who risked their lives and suffered for their country: John McCain, Max Cleland and now John Kerry.
How have they been able to get away with it? The answer is that we have been living in what Roger Ebert calls "an age of Rambo patriotism." As the carnage and moral ambiguities of Vietnam faded from memory, many started to believe in the comforting clichés of action movies, in which the tough-talking hero is always virtuous and the hand-wringing types who see complexities and urge the hero to think before acting are always wrong, if not villains.
After 9/11, Mr. Bush had a choice: he could deal with real threats, or he could play Rambo. He chose Rambo. Not for him the difficult, frustrating task of tracking down elusive terrorists, or the unglamorous work of protecting ports and chemical plants from possible attack: he wanted a dramatic shootout with the bad guy. And if you asked why we were going after this particular bad guy, who hadn't attacked America and wasn't building nuclear weapons - or if you warned that real wars involve costs you never see in the movies - you were being unpatriotic.
As a domestic political strategy, Mr. Bush's posturing worked brilliantly. As a strategy against terrorism, it has played right into Al Qaeda's hands. Thirty years after Vietnam, American soldiers are again dying in a war that was sold on false pretenses and creates more enemies than it kills.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Mr. Bush - who must defend the indefensible - has turned to those who still refuse to face the truth about Vietnam.
All the credible evidence, from military records to the testimony of those who served with Mr. Kerry, confirms his wartime heroism. Why, then, are some veterans willing to join the smear campaign? Because they are angry about his later statements against the war. Yet making those statements was itself a heroic act - and what he said then rings truer than ever.
The young John Kerry spoke of leaders who sent others to their deaths because they wanted to seem tough, then "left all the casualties and retreated behind a pious shield of public rectitude." Fifteen months after George Bush strutted around in his flight suit, more and more Americans are echoing Gen. Anthony Zinni, who received a standing ovation from an audience of Marine and Navy officers when he talked about the debacle in Iraq and said of those who served in Vietnam: "We heard the garbage and the lies, and we saw the sacrifice. I ask you, is it happening again?"
Mr. Kerry also spoke of the moral cost of an ill-conceived war - of the atrocities soldiers find themselves committing when they can't tell friend from foe. Two words: Abu Ghraib.
Let's hope that this latest campaign of garbage and lies - initially financed by a Texas Republican close to Karl Rove, and running an ad featuring an "independent" veteran who turns out to have served on a Bush campaign committee - leads to a backlash against Mr. Bush. If it doesn't, here's the message we'll be sending to Americans who serve their country: If you tell the truth, your courage and sacrifice count for nothing.
Originally published in The New York Times, 8.24.04