Tags: Kerry's | Swift | Boat | Supporters

Kerry's Swift Boat Supporters

Wednesday, 08 September 2004 12:00 AM

Having followed dirty politics since George Smathers spread the word throughout rural Florida that the incumbent senator, Claude Pepper, was well known in Washington as a “homo sapien” whose daughter was not only a practicing “thespian” but actually DID it in front of paying customers – I have to admit I was stumped by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. (Smathers, by the way, won!)

As a clean-politics-loving Bush voter, my first instinct was to wince at the crudeness of the Swift Boat vets’ attack on Senator Kerry and wonder who the new Lee Atwater was who could do anything that low. And what kind of equipment did it take to enable him to breathe while working at the bottom of that much heavy-heaving sleaze?

I’ve changed. For openers, the media interviews with the anti-Kerry Swift Boat vets project a glint of genuine deep feeling that has nothing to do with President Bush or even, really, with the election. These come across to me as men with the kind of “holy” grudge against traitors, sell-outs and poor behavers you carry out of a concentration camp, the Hungarian Revolution or – as is the actual case – a combat situation and a POW camp.

Also, the arithmetic suggests another scenario: 200 Swift Boat veterans signed on against Kerry and only 20 on his side. That would be as if Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards, suddenly needed a “Band of Trial Lawyer Brothers” to vouch for his ethical behavior in court while 10 times their number surrounded them screaming “Foul!” and “Unfit!”

There’s obviously no need for any of that. Instead, if there’s any trial lawyer feeling at all, it’s the normal pride that “One of our boys made it!”

The pro-Kerry forces emphasize that the Swift Boat vets who support Kerry were the ones who served directly with him, while the multitude who oppose Kerry merely served close by. Believe, say the Kerry forces, the men in the same boat!

My attention shifted from “Who in what cranny in the White House sub-cellar set up the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth?” all the way over to “Who in the Kerry camp arranged for the supportive Band of Brothers to coagulate publicly as a pro-Kerry team?” Actually, not so much “who” as “how.”

I need a running start now into a province of human nature that’s rarely of any interest or importance. There’s no name for it. If forced to coin one, I’d suggest “gravitational acquiescence" – going along with something you might not normally agree to because the inducement to do so is too strong and your inclination not to is too weak.

Those experienced in the Third World know the frustrations of the First World “boss” who asks a group of native field workers, for example, “Has Mr. Jones been by here lately?”

“Oh, yes, master,” they’re likely to respond, even if Mr. Jones hasn’t been seen for a year. Those workers sense that the boss wants Mr. Jones to have been there lately and they feel, “Who am I to mess up the desires of the Big Man?”

A less imperialistic example of “gravitational acquiescence" comes from my own experience. In the late 1970s the organization of North Carolina folks living in Washington, D.C., decided to have a barbecue contest between the best barbecue house in eastern North Carolina versus the best barbecue house in western North Carolina. I was proud to have been called in from New York as a judge. One of the other judges was the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and another was a superstar actress on a major network daily soap.

I happen to take North Carolina barbecue seriously. In the North, “barbecue” is nothing but a verb for cooking outside. In North Carolina, barbecue is a noun. Until I was 14 I thought there was an animal in the forest with bright orange tail feathers called a “barbecue,” who did nothing but roll around in honeysuckle all day and night to get as tasty as possible for me. I mustered my muscles of judgment and fairness and set about comparing the barbecue offerings from both contestants.

After the feast in a vast park in northern Virginia, we judges separated ourselves from the civilians and began to deliberate. At that point the coordinator of the affair came over to our table and said: “Look. This has to be a tie. Both of those restaurants have lugged so much equipment so far at such expense that, well, you understand ... It has to be a tie!”

And a tie was duly declared. After all, who were we to stand athwart such substantial realities? The inducement – the coordinator’s “fix” – outweighed any of our puristic inclinations to have a fair and valid barbecue fight! None of us lost sleep after voting a “tie.”

The anti-Kerry feelings of many veterans is nothing new. It just looks new to those of us outside Massachusetts. Those vets have been on Kerry like a duck on a June bug from his political debut. So, is it not possible that, anticipating a presidential candidacy and knowing of the volcanic intensity of the anti-Kerry feeling among so many of his fellow veterans, the Kerry team itself grabbed onto that curious “force" and contacted those who served under Kerry’s direct command.

“Look," they said. "Your wartime commander may very well become a candidate for president. His opponents will undoubtedly try to find inconsistencies in his war record. It would be helpful in the extreme if you who served closest with John Kerry were to organize into a Band of Brothers to vouch for and validate that Vietnam chapter of John Kerry’s life.”

I can see a frown or two among those veterans, akin to my own frown when I realized my barbecue vote was “arranged.” But, don’t forget, this all takes place long before the primaries, long before Kerry is a candidate, and long before there’s any question nationally and publicly about Kerry’s service record at all. All is calm. No political bullets are flying.

The Third World field hand wants to please his master. I and my fellow judges didn’t want to upset a pleasant picnic with a barbecue brawl. And those who served closest to Kerry, when told of their personal importance at the presidential level, felt more induced to say “Sure, I’ll be a Brother” than they felt inclined to rise up and say: “Hold on here! There may be irregularities in Kerry’s record!”

What’s more natural and comfortable is to sign on to a project that connects you to a president. Or one with an excellent chance to become president – with your help!

Two human nature forces coalesce at this point. There’s that old “Who am I to stand athwart the election as president of a man I served with on a small boat?”

And it’s altogether possible that, in that pre-heated, non-spotlighted moment in the presidential process, it was not that difficult for those “Brothers” to sign on. After all, Kerry’s alleged misbehavior was not radically different from what so many others were known to be doing in Vietnam!

The most interesting dollop of commentary I’ve read since the onset of this issue was from a Vietnam veteran himself who wrote that, especially in isolated units like the Swift Boaters, many applied for Purple Hearts for insignificant scratches – the easier to get out of Nam quicker. And many put each other in for medals beyond those which were warranted by battlefield behavior. Our letters-to-the-editor written by Vietnam vets in newspapers across America attest to the fact that “They were giving away medals like popcorn!”

I don’t suspect any illicit blandishments have been offered the Kerry-supportive vets for monetary or political rewards if they just hang together through the campaign. That’s not necessary. Once so aligned, there’s no easy way to “defect” without bringing shame upon themselves for having falsely supported the Kerry side of the story and then jumped ship.

I haven’t revisited my own “barbecue shame” until now.

If I were running for office, I wouldn’t offer my barbecue judgeship as evidence of my fitness for office. I’d leave it as an innocuous and uncelebrated item on my resume.

President George W. Bush did not offer his military history or his track record in business as evidence of his fitness for office. He left them as innocuous and uncelebrated items on his resume.

Perhaps John Kerry should have done the same thing regarding his Vietnam service.

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