John Kerry's "Christmas in Cambodia" yarn ignited the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Whatever your memory of the 2004 presidential campaign, Kerry's sudden silence about a wartime Christmas "seared" in his memory was a rare example of a citizens group (the Swifties) publicly backing down a powerful U.S. senator and a major-party presidential candidate.
Kerry's full quote, delivered in the midst of a 1986 Senate debate about aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, is rhetorically powerful:
"I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared -- seared -- in me."
Glorious oratory indeed, based, unfortunately, on a touch of truth (his naval service) magnified by chest-pounding falsehood.
There were, however, no cameras recording Christmas in the Mekong estuaries, which left Kerry with wiggle room. That's all a politician ever needs, of course, a silly centimeter of wiggle room. He accused the Swift vets of being motivated by partisan malevolence and personal animosity rather than historical veracity.
Kerry was dead right on the personal animosity angle. I still run into Vietnam veterans who rile at a memory "seared" in their minds -- that of Kerry pulling his made-for-television "Winter Soldier" routine, where he accused American soldiers of hideous war crimes. He rode those anti-American allegations into a political career.
Hillary Clinton is having her "Cambodian" moment -- her claim that she ducked sniper fire when she landed in Bosnia in 1996. Cameras, however, were rolling. The CBS News clip juxtaposing Clinton's stump speech rendition of her "snipers tale" to the tender hugs reality of her Bosnian excursion exposes the candidate's story as blarney.
This is blarney with damaging blowback, since Clinton's claim to superiority over her Democratic primary opponent, Barack Obama, is she possesses hard-core foreign policy expertise.
CBS earns qualified kudos. An Obama supporter, the comedian Sinbad, pulled the magic carpet from beneath Clinton's Bosnian crock. Sinbad was with Clinton in Bosnia, and he told a Washington Post political blog that "I think the only 'red-phone' (i.e., scary) moment was, 'Do we eat here or at the next place?'"
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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