For months, the big media and Democratic politicians have hammered on President Bush and his service in the National Guard, suggesting it was less than honorable. They called John Kerry a "war hero" almost as many times as Kerry himself brought up his Vietnam service.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe started the current round of sniper fire when he said the president had gone "AWOL" during the Vietnam War. Now that some of Kerry's swift boat colleagues and others have fired back with TV ads, they are said to be contributing to the loss of civility - and Democrats and some commentators keep saying they wish the candidates would get back to "the issues."
The commercials must be working.
President Bush denounced "all the stuff being on TV of the 527s," a reference to the Internal Revenue Service tax code that allows independent groups to advertise so long as they have no direct "ties" to a candidate.
Liberal groups like MoveOn.org, which is funded by the billionaire George Soros, must have thought they would have the field of battle to themselves and that, in the company of their fellow travelers in journalism (surveys show most overwhelmingly support Kerry) and the entertainment industry (ditto), they could dominate the information flow and the debate.
Democrats want voters to believe they were minding their own business when Republicans launched a rhetorical first strike. In fact, Democrats fired first.
Former Vice President Al Gore said the president "has brought deep dishonor to our country and built a durable reputation as the most dishonest president since Richard Nixon." Gore also referred to President Bush as a "moral coward" and called the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq "the Bush Gulag." Let's not forget the whiff of fascism when Gore accused the Bush administration of being allied with "digital brown shirts."
Kerry backer Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called Vice President Dick Cheney a "coward" for his Vietnam War draft deferments. Howard Dean questioned whether the raising of terror alerts in New York, Newark and Washington earlier this month was "real" or "politics."
Vietnam veteran and former Sen. Max Cleland not only labeled the president a "liar" concerning his reasons for going to war with Iraq (he included as liars Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld), but he also ascribed this motive to the president: "Because he concluded his daddy was a failed president and one of the ways he failed was that he did not take out Saddam Hussein."
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said President Bush is "prepared to take us back to the days of Jim Crow segregation and dominance . . . .," and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond went him one better when he said Republicans "draw their most rabid supporters from the Taliban wing of American politics."
There's plenty more, yet Democrats and their supporters cry "foul" when Republicans fire back (with, mind you, criticisms based on fact). This suggests that the Democrats can dish it out but have trouble taking it. If one wishes to go down the alley of such political rhetoric, one should not be surprised to get mugged at the end of it.
There are much better and more clever ways to get your point across without descending to rabid name-calling and the questioning of motives. Charles de Gaulle said of Winston Churchill: "When I am right, I get angry. Churchill gets angry when he is wrong. We are angry at each other much of the time."
Or how about this exquisite line from Adlai Stevenson: "If they will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them."
Ronald Reagan could singe without burning: "Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first."
Comedian Mort Sahl observed: "Reagan won because he ran against Jimmy Carter. If he'd run unopposed he would have lost." That's funny regardless of party or persuasion, and he makes his point without nastiness.
It would be nice if Republicans and Democrats elevated their criticism to this higher level. It might also get more people interested in, instead of turned off by, the political process by which we elect a president. Democrats can't credibly complain of a bloody nose when they threw the first punch.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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