Sunday, August 22, 2004

Ted Sampley and the Politics of Hero Destruction

So, now John Kerry's war record, his portrayal as a hero, is the subject of a Republican attack. Fair enough, in a way, since Kerry did make his war record exhibit #1 as evidence he was qualified to lead the U.S. in wartime. And Ted Sampley has played a key role in this attack.

The actual content of the attack on Kerry is very questionable. Personal sniping, dicey facts, questioning Kerry's character...well, you can see the ad yourself. I don't often agree with Susan Estrich, but she is by and large correct in this analysis. (I have never used "Susan Estrich" and "analysis" in the same sentence before, and promise not to do it again.)

The thing that is ironic is that very nearly the same sort of attack was carried out against....President George Bush. No, not W; to have your war record criticized, you have to have a war record. I am talking about George H. W. Bush, #41, Bush pere, whatever you want to call him. The similarities, and the differences, between these two incidents, are interesting.

The comparison of war records was important, in 1992, because the roles were reversed: the candidate named Bush was a "war hero", and the opponent (Clinton) was the draft dodger. The Democratic press was in a full snit that anyone might question Clinton:

A few people may be concerned about Clinton's patriotism, just as some are undoubtedly concerned about his use of marijuana. It now appears that the governor was first evasive, then dishonest about his drug use, that he may have been less than straightforward in his responses concerning his extramarital liaisons, that he lied to and manipulated people to dodge the draft, and that he continues to dodge questions about that issue. It is less any single one of these questions that causes concern about Clinton than the pattern of dishonest and disingenuous conduct exhibited by this entire collection of questions. I f, however, the issue were Clinton's patriotism, as the editorial suggests, it would be ludicrous to compare the record of President Bush to Clinton. If Bush's father [Prescott] got special treatment for [G.H.W.] Bush, his father did a poor job of it; at 18, George Bush was shot down in the Pacific. Clinton, when three or four years older, was busy figuring out whom he could manipulate to pull strings for him to help him avoid service. Clinton asks us to join him in a new covenant. It is fair to ask, when entering a covenant, whether the record of the person with whom you are covenanting suggests that he keeps his promises. The record of Clinton, and particularly his record regarding the draft, strongly suggests the contrary, implying that he is not worthy of our trust. Paul Ground Ballwin The 1992 presidential campaign is taking on more of a negative tone, especially on the GOP side. It appears to me that about all President Bush can talk about is the military status of Gov. Bill Clinton. Many people who are talking and wondering about it did the same thing that Clinton did, which was legal. Many men went to Canada to avoid serving. Vietnam was a totally unnecessary, immoral war from the start; one in which our country was not in danger or threatened. I, too, served proudly in World War II, but I would have done anything I could to keep my sons out of Vietnam. So would many of Bush's so-called advisers. I'm sure many of them used their influence to keep their sons out of Vietnam but don't have the guts to admit it. Why doesn't Bush stop trying to dig up dirt and face up to present realities? Bush and the GOP said they were not going to conduct a sleazy campaign and immediately after the Houston convention, they started attacking Hillary Clinton and the military record of Bill Clinton. (Editorial, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Sept. 26, 1992; emphasis added).

So, the Democrats seemed to think (at one point, at least) that one should not exploit the legitimate choice of a father to keep a son out of Viet Nam.

The facts of G.H.W.B. in WWII are not in dispute.

"Bush's story has never been as widely known as John F. Kennedy's and, up to now at least, hasn't been so blatantly exploited for political purposes; indeed Bush's relative modesty about his wartime exploits is one of the more attractive aspects of a political persona that otherwise leaves much to be desired. But now, for whatever reason, Bush has cooperated with Joe Hyams in the making of "Flight of the Avenger," a piece of pulp nonfiction that, though not wholly without value, rarely rises above the level of cheap melodrama. This is too bad, because what Bush accomplished deserves a better telling. Barely 20 years of age, he was a lieutenant (j.g.) in the Navy who had survived all the rigors of pilot training -- described herein with considerable detail, much of it interesting -- and had been assigned to fly an Avenger, "the biggest single-engine carrier-based plane in the Navy." On Sept. 2, 1944, with a crew of two, he made a successful attack on a Japanese radio tower transmitter on Chichi Jima, not far from Iwo Jima, but his plane was shot down; the other crew members were lost, but Bush managed to stay afloat in his life raft and was rescued by an American submarine about three hours later.That's it: no heroics, just an airman doing his job precisely as he'd been trained and managing to come out of it alive. Like others who have undergone similar trials, Bush emerged from it with a "very deep and profound gratitude and a sense of wonder ... Why had I been spared, and what did God have in store for me?" but -- also like other veterans of war -- he tried not to make too much of what he had done." (Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley's Review of Flight of the Avenger, March 6, 1991; emphasis added).

What was the reaction of the Dems to H.W.'s war record as a "hero"? The Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to Bush is pretty similar to a Silver Star (John Kerry's most significant medal). Are the two cases comparable? Because if the Dems controlled themselves, and avoided attacking H.W., that would be an indictment of the lack of self-control the Republicans have showed in allowing the swift boat ad to show and fester.

The answer is "no", however. The Democrats, or at least some of them, went after G.H.W. Bush pretty hard. The best summary I could find of the alternate set of "facts" alleged by the attackers (including people who had served with H.W. as meat puppets to spout the line that Bush pere was in fact a coward) was written as a retrospective, a few years later, after H.W. had parachuted again. (He just did it another time, as you may remember). The following is from a 1997 piece by Ted Sampley. (Interestingly, Sampley is one of the co-founders of Viet Nam Vets Against John Kerry. What is this guy's problem?) For the 1988 interview that first injected the accusations into the public eye, click here.

After 44 years of silence, Mierzejewski, who also was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, told the New York Post that Bush had abandoned his crew to death when there was another choice.

He said he was approximately 100 feet in front of Bush's plane as the turret gunner for Squadron Commander Douglas Melvin's plane, "so close he could see in the cockpit" of Bush's bomber. Mierzejewski's close wartime buddy was one of the two crew members in Bush's plane.

According to Mierzejewski, the squadron was in a tight-formation bombing raid against a Japanese radio installation on an island reported to be heavily fortified. He saw "a puff of smoke" come from Bush's plane which quickly disappeared and was certain only one man parachuted from the plane and that it was Bush, the pilot.

Mierzejewski said the Avenger torpedo bomber was engineered so that it could successfully crash land on water and that Bush doomed his own crew by bailing out and leaving the bomber out of control.

Other World War II veterans also expressed concern about Bush parachuting out of the aircraft. "He had a moral obligation to put that plane in the water in an emergency landing," Robert Flood, a former B-17 bombardier told the press. "He violated the primary rule for a captain of a multi-crew aircraft: The pilot never leaves the airplane with anybody in it."

Pete Brandon, a Marine Corps Avenger pilot, who also served in the South Pacific, said an Avenger pilot had two choices: Set the plane down in the water or hold it steady until the two crewmen could prepare to jump.

"In an Avenger, only the pilot wore a parachute," Brandon said. "The two crewmen wore harnesses. If the order came to bail out, they had to take chest parachutes from a shelf and strap them on - and bail out. The Avenger was very unstable. The pilot had to be at the controls the whole time or it would go right over on its back."

Steve Hart, then Vice President Press Secretary, described Mierzejewski's account as absurd. Hart said, "The Vice President has told us time and time again what happened that day. To suggest that the account is inaccurate is absurd."

What is absurd is the conflicting or missing reports of exactly what happened to Bush's two crew members. According to the Post, the intelligence report on the loss of Bush's plane in September, 1944 notes that it had become "standard doctrine" for VT 51, Bush's bomber squadron, "to make bombing runs on targets near water so as to retire over the water. This puts pilot and crew in position for water rescue in event of forced landing . . . "

The same document reports, without attribution, that "smoke and flame" engulfed Bush's engine, and that "Bush and one other person were seen to bail out. The chute of the other person who bailed out did not open."

The report was signed by Melvin and an intelligence officer, Lt. Martin E. Kilpatrick. Contrary to normal military procedure, the report was not dated and Navy archives were unable to supply a subsequently completed report. Gunner Lawrence Mueller, who lives in Milwaukee, flew on the ChiChi Jima mission.

When asked who had the best view, he replied unhesitatingly: "The turret gunner in Melvin's plane." Mueller's recollections, jogged by a log book that he kept, support Mierzejewski's account. And it was noted that Bush's plane was the only one from the squadron that did not return. Mueller told the Post, "No parachute was sighted except Bush's when the plane went down."

He also said no one mentioned a fire engulfing Bush's plane or he would have noted it in the log book. The Finback, the sub which picked up Bush from his raft in the water, made no report of a fire on Bush's plane, but did comment on his crew: "Bush stated that he failed to see his crew's parachutes and believed they had jumped when the plane was still over ChiChi Jima, or they had gone down with the plane."

About six hours later, the Finback picked up another pilot, James W. Beckman, from the USS Enterprise, who stated that it was known that only one man had parachuted from Bush's plane. "This decided us to discontinue any further search of that area . . ." Although the heart of Bush's story about the incident remains the same, Mierzejewski is adamant Bush's account is not the truth and blames Bush for the abandonment and deaths of both men.

"I think he could have saved those lives, if they were alive. I don't know that they were, but at least they had a chance if he had attempted a water landing," Mierzejewski said....

...As for [Bush's fitness to lead], there were two men who knew Bush very well and could have spoken about his loyalty to the men and women in uniform.

Unfortunately, very few people have ever heard of them and neither Radioman 2nd Class John Delaney or Gunner Lt. Junior Grade William White are able to speak. They are on the bottom of the Pacific off the coast of a tiny island where their pilot, Navy Lt. George Bush, sent them when he made his first parachute jump.

I think the differences between the two cases are more interesting than the similarities. The attacks on H.W. were not centrally orchestrated, had no relation to the Democratic National Committee or the Clinton campaign, and did not become a prominent part of the campaign. The reason the character assassination attacks on Bush's war record did not become central to the campaign? Several prominent Democrats stepped up and denounced the Mierzejewski story, saying that to suggest that H.W.'s war record was cowardly. The implication that Bush did not deserve the DFC or his other medals, earned in other engagements with the enemy, were flat wrong. The controversy died qiuckly, except for the lunatic fringe on the left.

Where are the prominent Republicans, the ones who could denounce the swift boat ad and end this ad hominem assault on Kerry's honor? The only person who has spoken out is John McCain, and he might as well have been spitting into the wind.

As a recent (but now ex-) Republican myself, let me say this to the younger Bush: Tell your hired thugs to pull the swift boat ad. Stop questioning Kerry's war record. Run a campaign that won't sicken moderates. Even if the ad, and accompanying sleaze attack, manage to work by getting you reelected this time, the damage to republic will be irreparable. At best, these ads and Kerry's answers (including hiding the rest of his war records) will prevent the public from trusting either one of you.

What is now obvious, and I am not sure why no one in the media has pointed this out, is that Ted Sampley is a professional character assassin. There is no ideological reason I can think of that would lead to blatantly absurd attacks on G.H.W. Bush and John Kerry. Sampley just doesn't want people to be able to use their war records. Tune Sampley out, please.

UPDATE: Two excerpts of Republicans weighing in, for and against the Kerry character attack campaign, from the WaPo today, same article:

1. "Yesterday, former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), whose right arm was disabled during World War II, attacked Kerry, agreeing with critics. "One day he's saying that we were shooting civilians, cutting off their ears, cutting off their heads, throwing away his medals or his ribbons," Dole said on CNN's "Late Edition." "The next day he's standing there, 'I want to be president because I'm a Vietnam veteran.' Maybe he should apologize to all the other 2.5 million veterans who served. He wasn't the only one in Vietnam."
Dole, the GOP's 1996 nominee, also questioned Kerry's commendations. "Three Purple Hearts and never bled that I know of," Dole said of the medal one gets for a combat injury. "I mean, they're all superficial wounds. And as far as I know, he's never spent one day in the hospital. I don't think he draws any disability pay. He doesn't have any disability. And boasting about three Purple Hearts when you think of some of the people who really got shot up in Vietnam."
Dole erroneously stated, "He got two in one day, I think." Kerry's Purple Hearts were received for different injuries over his four-month tour in Vietnam, during which he also received a Silver Star and a Bronze Star. Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton said, "It's unfortunate that senator Dole is making statements that U.S. Navy records prove false."

2. "The [Kerry] campaign got some unexpected help from Wisconsin state Rep. Terry M. Musser, a Vietnam veteran and co-chairman of Wisconsin Veterans for Bush. Musser lambasted the Bush-Cheney campaign in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel over Republican attacks on Kerry's military record. "I think it's
un-American to be attacking someone's service record. Period," Musser said
in a Washington Post telephone interview. "The president has an
opportunity here to stand up and demand that the attacks be stopped." (Thanks to SdM for the tip)


Anonymous said...

At your suggetion I read Professor Estrich's article, and was thereby reminded why I do not make a point of reading her articles. It is a sackful of the kind of lawyerly half-truths that I can get 'round the clock on cable TV, but choose to avoid. My favorite part of her article is the description of "50 yards" as "half a football field" (as in, "the closest any of [the critics] came to Kerry's boat was about half a football field away"). Personally, I prefer to think of 50 yards as "a mere lob wedge away," but that may just be due to my lack of familiarity with the more brutish sports.

The rest of her bogus "analysis" consists entirely of the astonishing fact that the Swift boaters' ads are being paid for and publicized by--get ready for a shocker--Republicans!! Just what the hell do you hypersensitive Duke professors require from us right-wing troglodytes--that we only run ads that George Soros is willing to pay for? I mean, really, WTF is the scandal here?

The "wrong doctor" red herring was cleared away about two weeks ago--the form was signed by a medical corpsman, not the MD who treated Kerry. I would have thought that a deep thinker and truth pursuer like Professor Estrich would have been able to find that piece of information on the World Wide Web.

Finally, let's look attentively at Estrich's pathetic attempt at passing off partisanship as fair play. She criticizes just as much as the Swifties, and wishes that Bush would do the same. But what are the similarities she sees between the Swifties and the fine patriots at MoveOn? Well, the MoveOn folks posted proto-TV ads comparing George Bush to the most notorious mass murderer of all time. No factual basis was provided for this comparison (how could it have been?), nor did anyone appear onscreen to make an actual charge against Bush. By contrast, the Swifties have identified themselves clearly and have explicitly contradicted certain claims given center stage at the 2004 DNC. Having made clear their charges, the Swifties have been met with nothing but sanctimonious prattle from the likes of Susan Estrich, Lanny Davis, and James Carville.

Meanwhile, Kerry's minions have already conceded the accuracy of one charge by the Swifties, about Kerry's celebrated "Christmas in Cambodia." Soon they'll be claiming that he confused a Bob Hope USO show he attended with a videotape of "Road to Singapore" that he once rented.

The fundamental issue is John Kerry's character. It's the issue he himself has chosen to run on. You may recall that his running mate told the nation that the best way to get to know John Kerry was to spend a few minutes talking (I see now that he didn't say "listening"--what a clever lawyer!!) to the men who served with him. This whole episode reminds me of the time when Gary Hart invited reporters to "follow him around," then went sailing on the "Monkey Business" with Donna Rice. Except that when people reported what they found back then they weren't attacked as contemptible smear artists.

It's pretty clear that John Kerry is a fabulist who actually believes the shit that he makes up about himself. And he gets very angry when people shove reality into his face. ("I didn't fall--I was pushed by a Secret Service agent!" What was his clarification? "I don't fall!") This is what the Swifties are trying to tell people, in their own ham-handed, outside-the-Beltway manner. If they can be refuted, then let the refutation begin. But so far they've been proven correct on one important fact. I think this has earned them the benefit of the doubt, not more ad hominem attacks.

mungowits said...

Since I wrote the post, I have become more sympathetic to the view expressed ably in the first comment here.

The swift boat guys, if you listen, are saying that one cannot logically both claim to be a Viet Nam war hero, and say that the U.S. war effort in Viet Nam was evil and characterized by pervasive war crimes.

The defense offered by the Kerry-ites is that he never made specific accusations against anyone. But it seems to me that this cuts in favor of the Vets Against Kerry: Kerry's indictment is of the U.S. war effort, not of rogue officers and enlisted men.

But....and this is a big but...then you have to stick to the comparison of Kerry's war hero status, and his performance after the war decrying everything about the U.S. war effort. I think that is a fair argument. I don't find it particularly persuasive, but it is the sort of thing where you have to let voters decide.

The thing that I think is both unseemly, and ultimately impolitic, is to muddle the attack on Kerry's bad judgment in criticizing the U.S. war effort in Viet Nam with an attack on Kerry personally as a coward and a liar.

Anonymous said...

"Coward" is undoubtedly unwarranted, since he did volunteer. "Hero" is something else entirely, and what's been in dispute.

As for "liar," well, Kerry keeps having to give ground to the Swift boat veterans. As reported elsewhere in the blogosphere: (

Here's the link to the Fox News report from Major Garrett. It mostly covers the Chris Wallace interview with John Hurley and CNN's interview of Bob Dole. Towards the end, Garrett talks about the first Purple Heart:

GARRETT: And questions keep coming. For example, Kerry received a Purple Heart for wounds suffered on December 2nd, 1968. But an entry in Kerry's own journal written nine days later, he writes that, quote, he and his crew hadn't been shot at yet, unquote. Kerry's campaign has said it is possible his first Purple Heart was awarded for an unintentionally self-inflicted wound.

Score another one for the Swiftvets, and another retreat for Kerry, this time on a key contention for both a medal (which some, including me, felt were too difficult to argue effectively) and for his truncated tour of duty.
It may well be rude to call a liar a liar, but it isn't slanderous.

Anonymous said...

"Well, the MoveOn folks posted proto-TV ads comparing George Bush to the most notorious mass murderer of all time "
This deserves to be further explicated., which is not in any shape or fashion an official organ of the Kerry/Edwards campaign, sponsored a contest in which they invited citizens to create a political advertisement. Sounds like a good idea. Unleash untapped creative potential, etc. They received 1000s of entries, and posted them on their website. One of these advertisements showed Adolf Hitler making a speech in 1930s Germany, over which words to the effect of "god told me invade Iraq" were laid. Obviously, this individual was exercising his rights of free speech in order to make an outlandish claim that George Bush and Adolf Hitler share more than executive authority and a lackluster education. Poor taste? Obviously. Ridiculous? Yes. Hate speech? Hardly. Yet that's what Ed Gillespie, RNC Chairman called it. He's wrong, and he should know better. Even though 'Hate Speech' is a controversial term with no clear cut meaning, a working definition is the following: "speech intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability." ( Doesn't fly in this case, does it? Furthermore, most people who have given thought to the matter (I won't say there are 'hate speech' experts...) think that it can only be meaningful when applied to groups (as in "Protestants should burn in hell" being screamed at a passer-by Presbyterian). "George Bush is like Adolf Hitler" does not count. Finally, hate speech is still....speech, and thereby protected under the first amendment. The line is drawn when, and only when, such speech can be shown to do harm to its intended audience.
Is that what has happened here? Hardly.

All that said, the larger issue is this: John Kerry's campaign quickly and vigorously criticized Moveon for their lack of editorial swiftness in catching and eliminating the onerous video from its website.

Then the Bush campaign takes the controversial Hitler/Bush footage, creates an ad of their own, and posts it on the front page of the official Bush for President website! The ad implied that Kerry, Al Gore, and Howard Dean were now sympathetic to the outlandish ad that their party denounced. The connection was not Hitler-->Bush. It was Crazies Who Compare Hitler to Bush-->Kerry. Total hornswaggle. Both claims are ridiculous. Yet one was created and sponsored by a private citizen practicing his rights of free speech. The other was created and sponsored by the official campaign of the sitting President.

It is incredible how the Bush Administration managed to continually blow its enemies out of proportion. All of a sudden a frustrated citizen with a digital camera becomes an official hitman for the Kerry campaign. I can't even think of an equally outlandish embellisihment. Except for perhaps turning an isolated and paranoid tin-pot dictator into a possessor of chemical- and biological- (maybe even nuclear) weapons sitting at the critical juncture of worldwide terrorism. Oh wait...

Anonymous said...

Nicely written. You manage to make these preposterous assertions seem almost reasonable:

1. All those video files just got posted on MoveOn's site without any editorial decisions being made--until the shit hit the fan.

2. Bush=Hitler is a comparison that's never been made by anyone in the anti-Bush crowd except for this one lone cineaste.

3. A Yale BA and a Harvard MBA constitute a "lackluster education."

4. MoveOn is completely, utterly and implacably unrelated to the Democratic Party. (Oh wait--you said the "Kerry/Edwards campaign," didn't you? Huge difference, I'm sure. Unlike Ed Gillespie and the Bush/Cheney campaign.)

You can keep saying this sort of stuff up to the election, but it's just become laughable.

Anonymous said...

The original post said to Bush:

"Tell your hired thugs to pull the swift boat ad. Stop questioning Kerry's war record. Run a campaign that won't sicken moderates."

Who do you claim "hired" these guys? Are you aware of the bags of money they've gotten from contributors of all sorts since their first ad aired?

Would you like to reconsider the word "thugs" for a group of combat veterans who appear to be quite sincere in their views and are willing to take the counterattack that they had to know would come?

Did you know that "undecided" voters (don't know if they're also "moderates") have found the Swift boat ads to be both negative and persuasive? Here's a study you ought to take a look at:

Anonymous said...

oops--here's the link to the study:

Anonymous said...

There is a clear difference between MoveOn's relation to the Kerry/Edwards campaign and Ed Gillespie's relation to the Bush/Cheney campaign. One group has sympathies aligned with one candidate and against the other. Ed Gillespie is paid to make sure his candidate--and the entire Republican party--looks good at all costs. Moveon has been critical of Kerry and other Democrats in the past. Can the same be said for Ed Gillespie?

Anonymous said...

Just for the record (from Vodkapundit):

• Kerry campaign lawyer Bob Bauer and Democratic National Committee counsel Joe Sandler also represent 527s -- not illegal, but doesn't it deserve a little scrutiny?

• Jim Jordan, John Kerry's campaign manager until last November, works for three of the 527s.

• Harold Ickes, an executive committee member of the Democratic National Committee, heads the Media Fund.

• Bill Richardson simultaneously chaired the Democrats' national convention and a 527.

• Michael Meehan became Kerry's spokesman after running NARAL Pro-Choice America's "soft money" programs.

• Zack Exley went from being a executive to the Kerry campaign.

Now I must go into Ron Popeil Mode and say, "But wait, there's more!"

• Fred Baron, chairman of Kerry Victory 2004, who gave $50,000 to Richardson's 527.

• Stephen Bing, John Edwards's top donor, who contributed $8 million to 527s.

• Susie Buell, Kerry vice chairman, who raised more than $100,000 for the campaign and gave more than $1 million to 527s.

• Lewis Cullman, a major DNC donor who raised more than $100,000 for the Democratic Party and gave $1.65 million to 527s.