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McCain And His Swiftboat Crew

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In telephone conference calls with reporters this week, the McCain campaign complained bitterly about Democratic attacks on John McCain's military credentials, while at the same time trotting out even worse attacks on Democrats' military credentials, even reviving the "swiftboat" attacks leveled in 2004 against John Kerry.

Obama's surrogates' recent jibes at McCain's qualifications may be, at least in part, an early effort to immunize some of his potential running mates from "swiftboating." Obama knows his credentials on defense are weak -- Hillary Clinton, who never served in the armed forces, even knocked him around some in that area -- so he's at least considering the option of picking a vice presidential candidate with a military background. And Obama's smart enough to know that any candidate with a military background -- especially Kerry, whose name was on a leaked list of those under consideration, but including all the other possibilities, even that longest of long shots, Colin Powell -- will be subject to Swiftboating. Kerry? Faked his own wounds in Vietnam! Powell? Helped cover up the My Lai Massacre!

Obama knows he will gain little ground with voters by tearing down McCain's heroism or credentials on defense; his game plan is to change the frame, not fight McCain head on in that arena. But Obama always operates on more than one level, and he may be protecting his ability to choose a military running mate by pressuring the Republicans, early, into agreeing to a mutual cessation of hostilities when it comes to swiftboating. No one in Obama's camp really thinks McCain was a bad officer (they're not even claiming he was), or that he isn't a bona fide war hero (of course he is). What they may be looking for is for the Republican Party to unmistakably and publicly sue for peace -- to ask that both sides take such attacks completely off the table. But McCain isn't getting the message -- in fact, he's making things worse. And so the drumbeat of war, which neither side wants, will continue.

The main Obama surrogate taking mild pokes at McCain has been Wesley Clark, a four-star general who was a Rhodes scholar and valedictorian of his class at West Point, was shot four times but still directed a successful counterattack during an action in Vietnam, and has (like John McCain, John Kerry and Bud Day, who comes into this later) been awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the Silver Star.

Clark has said that McCain's time as a P.O.W. in Vietnam and his command of a peacetime, land-based replacement squadron aren't sufficient leadership positions to qualify McCain as Commander in Chief. Fair criticism, especially from someone who (unlike Day and McCain) earned General Officer rank, and not particularly harsh. But instead of shrugging it off, McCain called a telephonic press conference Monday, theatrically unveiling a cadre of supporters with a dramatic name redolent of the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- "the McCain Truth Squad" -- to defend his honor.

In Monday's conference call, McCain's surrogates didn't stick strictly to defense. For instance, retired Col. Bud Day -- a highly decorated veteran of WWII and Vietnam who was a cellmate of John McCain's in North Vietnam -- aggravated the conflict by calling Clark a poser whose Vietnam experience didn't really count because he got wounded too soon:

But I suppose a little payback's only fair; elsewhere, the "Truth Squad" seemed to call for the kind of mutual truce that I believe Obama is trying to obtain. Day, for example, went on to decry "political shenanigans" and then, in response to a question from Major Garrett of Fox News, said this:

"Let me make a comment about this issue of personal attacks. Inasmuch as I was John's commander in Vietnam as well as one of his loyal workers during the 2000 campaign, I am well aware of what the commencement of these kind of personal attacks can lead to. John was slandered and reviled in the 2000 campaign in a way that denigrated his service enormously and in my view was probably one of the reasons why he was not the President of the United States in 2000. So experience has taught all of us, I hope, that just as previous campaigns to this one have occurred, and there's been a need to answer these outrageous allegations, it was absolutely important to face this issue right off the bat."

Here's the audio:

It's worth bookmarking, because it's one of the clearest indictments of swiftboating you're ever likely to hear. Day was talking about Bush's slimy attacks on McCain in 2000, but he might as well have been talking about the swiftboat attacks on Kerry in 2004. Even the first names are the same, so for kicks try listening again and mentally substituting "2004" for "2000." On its face, Day's statement certainly seems to universally condemn "swiftboat" style attacks on candidates' military records. And it might have been good enough to warrant Obama calling off his dogs.

Except for two things:

(1) Bud Day -- the decorated veteran who so passionately decries the kinds of lies that kept McCain out of the Oval Office in 2000 and thinks slanders about candidates' military records should be nipped in the bud -- was a member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth whose slanders against John Kerry's military record kept Kerry out of the Oval Office in 2004. He even appeared in one of their TV ads.

(2) Like a true SBVT member, Bud Day couldn't keep himself from telling lies even for the duration of one conference call. In the last question of the call, Politico's Ben Smith asked why Clark's comments about McCain were any different than the slanders Day had made about Kerry in 2004. Day swallowed the bait, explaining that 2004 was completely different because everything the Swiftboaters said about Kerry was true.

(Of course, the attacks on John Kerry's record were disproven. Back in 2004, McCain himself called the attacks "dishonest and dishonorable" (though he's still willing to take Swiftboaters' "dishonorable" money). Several of Kerry's boatmates have challenged the Swiftboats' main funder, Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, to produce the $1 million reward he offered to anyone who could prove Kerry really was a hero.)

And then, instead of McCain's press staff hitting the "mute" button and backpedaling the way they should have, they let retired Marine Lt. Col. Orson Swindle get on the line, where he agreed with Day, and added that the criticisms of McCain are worse than the Swiftboat attacks because they're "snide." (Snide?! Oh, the horror!)

The audio is remarkable. Compare Colonel George Everett "Bud" "Swiftboating's Bad!" Day above with Colonel George Everett "Bud" "Swiftboating's True!" Day here, and marvel not just at the insane inconsistency but at the fact that a serious major-party political candidate who trumpets his experience and good judgment actually lets a loon like Day speak on his behalf:

In the end, the only thing the "John McCain Truth Squad" accomplished in that call was to put McCain in an even deeper version of the hole he started in: representing a party that's already proven itself willing to slander people's military records and is doing so again in this election. By choosing Day as one of his spokesmen, and letting him spout off without issuing an immediate retraction, McCain didn't discourage swiftboating, he endorsed it -- and in so doing, invited further attacks on himself.

So, of course, Obama's surrogates haven't stopped. You don't stop bombing when the enemy refuses a truce; you keep the pressure on -- which Clark, a good military tactician, did:

I fully respect John McCain and his service and I said so repeatedly. My point is that there's a difference in preparing yourself for the highest office in the land depending upon which levels you've served at in the Armed Forces. John McCain as a young officer demonstrated courage and character. But the service as President is about judgment and the experience that he had as a fighter pilot isn't the same as having been at the highest levels of the military and having to make -- work with the President and other heads of state and make those kinds of life or death decisions about national, strategic issues.

Predictably, McCain -- still clueless about what's really going on here, and lacking any sense of proportionality -- overreacted again, and called another press conference call Tuesday to complain some more -- and, equally predictably, his surrogates made matters worse yet again. On Tuesday's McCain call, Col. Day was kept off the firing line, but Lt. Col. Swindle picked up the slack, calling Clark a failed, egotistical publicity hound:

Then Swindle, hypocritically, did to Clark exactly what he vilifies Clark for doing to McCain -- criticizing Clark's performance as a military officer and questioning whether his ethics "even exist":

This will give you a sense of how silly this whole foofaraw is, and how thin-skinned McCain is being. Clark has said:

"Everybody admires John McCain's service as a fighter pilot, his courage as a prisoner of war. There's no issue there. He's a great man and an honorable man. But ... that doesn't prepare you to be commander in chief in terms of dealing with the national strategic issues that are involved."

And McCain considers that an intolerable attack on his military service. But when Swindle said Clark's Vietnam experience didn't count because he was wounded too soon, that his military record was "less than stellar," and that he lacked any ethics, a McCain aide used almost identical language in explaining why those weren't attacks at all:

"It certainly was not an attack on his service - no one would ever disparage that. Everyone honors Gen. Clark's service and sacrifice -- he's literally bled for our country. It was about policy disputes."

Am I the only one finding it difficult to see the difference?

If McCain really wants Obama to "knock this crap off!" as Swindle colorfully put it yesterday morning, he's going about it completely wrong -- using exactly the kind of "warrior" instead of "warrior/statesman" mindset that Clark's talking about. The GOP invented the "attack 527" in 2004. The Republican Party Swiftboated John Kerry in 2004, and now McCain's surrogate has incredibly repeated the swiftboat lies against Kerry (who's not even involved in this squabble) in a formal, campaign-endorsed setting. Then, instead of backing away from those gaffes, the McCain camp called another news conference to let another McCain surrogate pile on. It's as if McCain only knows how to attack blindly, not how to use attack, retreat and parley as tools to accomplish a larger, strategic goal.

If the Obama camp is playing a relatively advanced diplomatic game to pressure McCain into calling a mutual end to these kinds of attacks -- to end not just the swiftboating of players with military backgrounds, but also such thuggery as the Tennessee G.O.P.'s attacks on Michelle Obama, which McCain pretended he was powerless to stop -- then it may have overestimated the strategic intelligence of its opponent. The Obama camp is merely trying to send McCain the message that if the Republicans will call an end to swiftboating, the Democrats will do the same. But it's becoming increasingly clear that the "experience" candidate's camp is not subtle or sophisticated enough to get even that simple message.