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)