Jonah Goldberg

The Swift Boat Vets for Truth have started a tragic, stupid argument.

Oh, I don't mean the factual debate about John Kerry's war record. I'm referring to the argument over what sort of speech should be permitted during an election campaign.

As for the steady bleeding the Kerry campaign has suffered over the Swift Boat controversy itself, let's just say it was a self-inflicted wound. No president in recent memory has more explicitly run as a war hero. In fact, until recently, you rarely heard a presidential contender bragging about his war record, because pretty much every major politician had served in uniform.

John Kerry is different. Because the Democrats have been perceived, rightly, as weak on defense in general, and because Kerry in particular has been among America's most dovish senators, his campaign thought it necessary to treat his 20 years in the Senate as an asterisk and his four months in Vietnam as his "record." The Democratic Convention, which everyone hailed as brilliantly scripted by the Kerry campaign, made Kerry's Vietnam service the focal point of everything. His biographical film barely mentioned his political career, and his speech began with Kerry saluting and declaring that he was "reporting for duty."

But now Kerry says that his service is off-limits to criticism and inquiry. What nonsense.

It's even more absurd considering that Kerry's campaign and the DNC have said repeatedly that Bush and Cheney don't have the right to criticize even Kerry's legislative record because they didn't serve in Vietnam. Several times, when Republicans attacked Kerry's dovish positions on the MX missile, B-1 bomber and Tomahawk missile, the Kerry campaign immediately accused the GOP of "questioning" Kerry's patriotism and "re-opening the wounds" of Vietnam.

So now it is Vietnam vets - indeed, men who served in the same waters and in the same unit as Kerry - who are raising questions about Kerry's service, and we are told that they have no right to do so, either. Remember, half of the Swifties' case against Kerry has to do with what he said when he returned from Vietnam - about participating in, witnessing, and otherwise having knowledge of horrendous "routine" war crimes committed by American forces in Vietnam. And they have no right to call him to account?

I don't buy the "you can't judge if you weren't there" argument, whether it's touted by people on the left or the right. But since the Democrats have invested so much in it this year, it's particularly galling for them to say that 17 of Kerry's 23 fellow swift boat officers have no right to speak. If they don't, who does?

And speaking of rights, nowhere is this argument dumber than where it crosses paths with the First Amendment. The Kerry campaign wants the book "Unfit For Command" pulled from the shelves. The Bush Campaign has been bullied into "condemning" all 527s - the "independent" political organizations that have spent nearly $250 million since 2003. Of course, the Kerry campaign and the largely supportive media establishment think Bush should condemn only the Swift Vets. They don't think Moveon.org, America Coming Together and all of the lavishly funded "independent" liberal interest groups need much condemning at all.

Howard Dean says President Bush should "apologize to the American people" for breaking the law because an unpaid volunteer to a Bush campaign advisory committee appears as one of the talking heads in one of the Swift Boat ads. Of course, the Bush campaign has disavowed any ties, but the media starts from the presupposition that Bush is lying.

Meanwhile, America Coming Together has hired John Kerry's former campaign manager, Jim Jordan. Moveon.org has been embraced by the Democrats in myriad ways for years now. Mr. and Mrs. Kerry have even participated personally in events funded by MoveOn.org.

But all of that is just the usual cocktail of media double standards and hypocrisy typical of presidential election years. What is so thoroughly absurd and tragic is how we've come to accept as the "enlightened" position in America that political speech needs to be regulated as much as the instructions on prescription drugs. These 527s are the inevitable consequence of the fact that Americans who don't have the opportunity to appear on television or write columns for newspapers want to have a voice in politics. They're also the result of the fact that very rich people - like George Soros - can always find a way to be heard. Campaign finance "reform" holds that only "legitimate" voices can be heard in a democracy, which should be repugnant to the crowd that usually waxes pious about First Amendment rights.

Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" is surely as dishonest as anything the Swift vets can be alleged to have made up. Why not try to ban Moore from making movies?

The notion that, politically or legally, only some people have the "right" to say something during an election runs completely counter to the core intent of the First Amendment. But, hey, what right do I have to say that?


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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