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August 25, 2004

SOME PERSPECTIVE ON THE KERRY-CAMBODIA STORY: Reader Charles Ligo emails:

Perhaps it's because John Kerry provides a - er - "target-rich environment", but I've noticed you are devoting a larger than normal percentage of your blog to politics.

Not that I'm complaining - - -

Well, I'd rather be blogging about something else. Of course, I've felt that way since September 11, 2001 . . . .

And I am pretty tired of blogging about Kerry, and the election (like Steven Den Beste, I was tired of this election in November of 2003), and if Kerry had more, um, definition I'd probably write about him a lot less. But let's recap. Kerry said he was in Cambodia on Christmas, 1968. It has turned out, as even his campaign has admitted, not to be true.

This tells us something that we already kind of knew, that Kerry was way too willing to exaggerate his military experience for political ends. That's not a cardinal sin, perhaps, but as Mickey Kaus pointed out yesterday, it's a bigger deal when the guy gives you so little else to work with. I'm inclined to agree with Lawrence Kaplan (pay-only, but quoted here), about the limited relevance of military service to the Presidency. And I certainly agree with Andrew Sullivan that "The truth is: Biden and Lieberman and Edwards and even Obama were more ressuring on the war than Kerry was." And since that's my single issue, in a way the Cambodia story is not that important a question, since the answer looks pretty clear regardless. Heck, even the LBJ angle might cut in Kerry's favor from my perspective -- perhaps his desire to look macho will keep him from doing what I fear, and Democrats hope, he'll do on the war.

But the press -- and this, to me, is the most interesting and disturbing part of the story -- has been shamelessly covering for Kerry, first by ignoring the story, then by spinning it, and now by confusing it.

A few years ago -- maybe even a few months ago -- I would have looked at a story like this and, if it never got much major play, would have assumed that there was nothing to it. Now I know better. (Question: Was the press more professional decades ago, or was it just harder to tell when they cheated?)

This seems like a big deal to me.

As for the election, well. . . . That's a big deal, too, but actually a lesser deal. The thing is, I agree with Andrew Sullivan that Kerry looks like he'd be bad on the war. But, to be fair, you never know. If in 2000 I had known what was to come, but had known only what I knew about George W. Bush back then, I probably would have supported Al Gore as a more experienced, capable wartime leader. That -- as Gore's post-2000 behavior has shown -- would likely have been a serious mistake. Bush rose to the challenge despite a not-especially-distinguished prior history. That should make me humble.

As N.Z. Bear put it:

Bush is no prize. But he's the devil we know, and a devil who, for all his flaws, takes seriously the threat facing our nation and appears to be trying to do something about it. With Bush, I expect I will have four more years to quibble with and argue about his tactics in the conduct of this war. With Kerry, once the campaign was over, I fear I'd have a difficult time convincing him there was a war at all.

I think that's right. But I could be wrong (and I hope I am). I've been wrong about a lot of Presidents (though usually in the direction of disappointment, not underestimation!). And my experience with hardfought faculty hiring decisions is that, while I'm usually right in my assessments of who's good and who's not, I'm wrong often enough to not treat any one of them as a live-or-die decision. (But unlike academic hiring decisions, we can't declare the candidates inadequate and put off filling the slot until next year. And the stakes are somewhat higher.)

Just as who controlled the Senate in 2002 wasn't the most important thing in the world, who wins the White House in 2004 isn't either, except perhaps to those involved. But if the institutional press is, as Evan Thomas suggested, capable of delivering a 15% margin to its preferred candidate, enough to decide almost any election, and if they're willing to go to almost any lengths in delivering that margin, well, then, we've got a serious problem. (And we don't, really, have a democracy.) To me (and to others) that's a bigger deal than Bush v. Kerry, but it's certainly illustrated by the Kerry issues of the last few months.

Claudia Rosett is, unfortunately, probably right that we'll soon go back to talking about war and terror -- and that's worse, just as going from talk about Gary Condit to talk of Al Qaeda was worse, in September of 2001. But I hope that people will remember what's been demonstrated here, in interpreting the press reports of those, more horrific, events.

UPDATE: For more on the media, read this column by Stephen Green.

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