The unraveling of a presidential campaign? Or the destruction of the last obstacle to politically successful lying? Last week the key election story changed from a debate about 35-year-old minutiae to whether a potential president imbeds in his brain a fantasy life.
When Unfit for Command, a searing indictment of John Kerry's Vietnam service, hit bookstores in mid-August and also became the top-selling book at both Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, Kerry staffers back-peddled. One of the book's charges is that Sen. Kerry's frequent claim to have spent a fighting Christmas in Cambodia in 1968 is a lie, even though he said in 1986, "I have that memory which is seared-seared-in me."
In interviews and speeches over the years, Sen. Kerry added intriguing (but apparently fantasy) details involving a CIA agent and delivering weapons to anti-Communist forces. Unfit says the "seared" memory is all smoke. Kerry crewmates denied ever going to Cambodia. His commanding officer said the trip never happened. Internet journalists jumped on the discrepancies, tracking down different Kerry iterations of the incident. Hugh Hewitt, Powerlineblog, and Instapundit advanced the story. The story, and the Kerry campaign's acknowledgment that the Christmas Eve memory was mistaken, did not make newspapers at first, but columnists Michael Barone and Robert Novak picked it up. Editorials appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Rocky Mountain News, and the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle noted, "The same news media that demanded George W. Bush release his National Guard records-and went over them with a microscope-have shown an appalling lack of interest in John Kerry's military service."
Despite the Chronicle's call to "examine the records-all the records, which, unlike Bush and contrary to popular perception, Kerry has not released-and have a debate," the major broadcast networks were silent as of Aug. 18, as were The New York Times and The Washington Post, and the news pages of The Wall Street Journal and Houston Chronicle. On Aug. 19 the Post ran a front-page attack on the credibility of one of the Swift Boat vets, Larry Thurlow, and criticized private citizen Thurlow for not releasing his own military records.
The contrast with coverage of the Bush/National Guard story early this year is striking. According to the Media Research Center, "From Feb. 1-16, ABC, CBS, and NBC aired 63 National Guard stories or interview segments on their morning and evening news programs." The big media demanded release of all the Bush records. Only after the Bush campaign did a massive record drop did the media hubbub subside.
Why the different treatment of the two stories? WORLD asked reporters covering the Kerry campaign whether their organizations had demanded he release his complete military records. One way to do that would be for him to sign a Standard Form 180, which authorizes the Navy to release his records directly to the public. Michael Kranish of The Boston Globe said his newspaper had asked Sen. Kerry to authorize a release of his records (as has WORLD). Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News said his newspaper asked both President Bush and Sen. Kerry to release their records, and those 63 ABC, CBS, and NBC stories on the Bush campaign brought results, although President Bush has still not signed a 180. The Kerry campaign has not felt such heat.
Stephen Dinan of The Washington Times, who traveled with the Kerry campaign, said, "Other than the Swift Boat vets, I haven't heard anyone ask him about the 180 form." In an Aug. 18 Times story, Kerry campaign press secretary Michael Meehan told Mr. Dinan Sen. Kerry's "entire record" is posted on JohnKerry.com.
That is not true, but perhaps that blanket statement will capture the attention of broadcast network journalists, and they'll check it out. They had ignored what columnist Barone calls "the kind of resumé padding that routinely disqualifies political appointees and damages political candidates." But Sen. Kerry, stung by criticism in blogs and columns, announced on Aug. 19, "More than 30 years ago I learned an important lesson.
When you're under attack the best thing to do is turn your boat into the attack. That's what I intend to do." Major media seemed likely to follow.
-by Susan Olasky with reporting by John Dawson