The McCain myth

Rich Lowry
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Posted: Aug 26, 2004 12:00 AM

   It is supposed to be a devastating critique of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that John McCain doesn't like their ads. But should we be surprised? McCain knows no party. Instead, together with Kerry supporter Max Cleland, the Arizona senator makes for the smallest caucus in American politics -- Thin-Skinned Vietnam War Veterans Adored by the Media (TSVWVAM).

    A Kerry ad (now taken off the air) featured a clip from McCain at a 2000 debate in South Carolina excoriating Bush for abiding attacks on his service. It seems devastating, unless you know the context. McCain was furious -- a not-infrequent condition for the Arizona maverick -- that a Bush supporter who is a veteran had stood next to Bush at a rally and complained about McCain's Senate voting record. It wasn't an attack on McCain's service. But both members of TSVWVAM have the same inability to distinguish between criticisms of their records and themselves personally.

    "He has always opposed all the legislation," the pro-Bush vet said, "be it Agent Orange or Gulf War health care, or frankly the POW/MIA issue." You don't have to subscribe to every particular of this litany to consider it firmly in-bounds. A McCain vote in 1999 against a Department of Veterans Affairs spending bill, for instance, angered some vets, as did his work to normalize relations with Vietnam. Veterans of Foreign Wars gave McCain a 75 percent favorable rating in 1998, respectable but lower than other senators who scored in the 80 percent to 100 percent range. In 1995, McCain scored a mere 27 percent. So it's not as though his legislative record was beyond reproach.

    Journalist Byron York has debunked the other "McCain was smeared in South Carolina" charge. McCain mainly alleged that the Bush campaign was calling voters in a dirty "push poll" and telling them, "McCain is a cheat and a liar and a fraud." McCain's charge was based on the testimony of one 14-year-old boy. The Bush campaign released the script of the advocacy calls it was making, and the script said only, "Don't be misled by McCain's negative tactics." Asked by the Los Angeles Times to provide voters who had received the smear calls, the McCain campaign unearthed only six. According to the Times, of the voters it could reach, "three described questions that, while negative, appear to have been part of a legitimate poll. Another said she heard no negative information at all."

    McCain lost in South Carolina because he was too liberal for Republican primary voters and his campaign was considered too negative after he compared Bush's honesty to Bill Clinton's. A Washington Post columnist recently complained in outraged tones that the Bush campaign in South Carolina was "questioning the conservative credentials" of McCain. Horrors! That is at least an accurate depiction of what happened, but hardly an outrage.

    McCain got out in front of the Swift Boat controversy, immediately calling the first ad "dishonest and dishonorable," thus making TSVWVAM unanimous. McCain so pronounced himself before he possibly could have known the truth about the allegations, since he wasn't there in the Mekong Delta and no substantive reporting had yet been done on the charges. Why does one set of Vietnam veterans, those backing Kerry, automatically trump another set of Vietnam veterans, those critical of Kerry?

    Well, on almost any issue not directly related to the war on terror, McCain can be expected to come down on the side not of the conservatives, the liberals, the Republicans or the Democrats, but of the journalistic clerisy. Determine what the conventional wisdom of the press is (in this case that the Swift Boat vets are discreditable), and there John McCain will be, standing like a stone wall.

    John Kerry is happy to exploit McCain's position. Never mind that Kerry's Swift Boat counterattack is based on two charges that are flatly untrue: that Bush smeared McCain in 2000 and that he is behind the Swift Boat ads now. That is apparently beneath the notice of TSVWVAM and their sycophants in the press.