Public Nuisances

Posted: May 03, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Who stands with me in being amazed once again by the public discourse? The soul searching over former Sen. Bob Kerrey is what I have in mind. I am amazed that a United States senator should now be hounded wherever he goes by allegations that he participated in a war crime 32 years ago in a remote village during the war in Vietnam, a war crime never before exposed. Politicians are supposed to be scrutinized by their opponents, various public-interest organizations and the press. Why now, when one accuser comes forward to lodge grisly and extraordinary charges against an American war hero -- charges refuted by the six other soldiers who were with the accuser and supported only by our enemies still living in a totalitarian state -- are the television program "60 Minutes" and The New York Times Magazine lending these charges such heft? Why are so many hitherto friends of Kerrey now viewing him as suspicious? Why are so many of the faculty at the New University, where he was raised to the presidency now in an emotional boil? We have had decades to scrutinize Kerrey. He fought in Vietnam with distinction and returned intoning the fashionable skepticism about the war. He was much admired by the keepers of the national conscience; the intellectual giants who pump a mixture of partisan politics and bogus religion into our culture transforming it into a kind of smog, a Kultursmog. Kerrey had a prevenient sense for the Kultursmog's many extravagances. He was always fashionably offbeat in his public life. The participants in the smog loved it. Now he is being destroyed for having played one of the Kultursomg's approved roles, the hero with the haunted conscience. Had he played a different role, the laconic American hero from a different era, his public hand wringing would not attract such suspicion from the Kultursmog's fickle minds. To those observers whose values come from a pre-1960s era, the allegations against Kerrey are ancient and unsubstantiated. The atrocity supposedly took place in a remote Vietnamese village and went unreported for years. What his opponents in the press consider evidence against him is thin and thunderously refuted by Kerrey's comrades who were there. Return with me again to the Kultursmog; one of the besetting failures of modern America is the shapelessness of its ethics, the paucity of its intellectual standards. Sidney Hook, the distinguished professor of philosophy, was a lifelong opponent of hokum, usually communist hokum and the hokum of those whom he termed from his own left-wing perspective "ritualistic liberals." Toward the end of his life, Hook lamented the erosion of "the rules of evidence." He thought America's departure for disciplined argument had removed the public discourse from the realms of intellect to the realms of soap opera and demagoguery. It would be interesting to know how many in the press now convinced by the faulty evidence against Kerrey were unconvinced by the evidence against Bill Clinton, the evidence that Clinton was corrupt. It mounted for eight years. In the first year of his presidency, state troopers who served as his bodyguards came forward in far greater numbers than Kerrey's sole accuser. The corruption they claimed to have witnessed was far better corroborated. The misdeeds, though less serious, were extensive, involving misuse of state property such as credit cards, automobiles, state officials and lowly employees. Some of the misdeeds were only a few months into the past. There are people in the press that still doubt this evidence. As the Clinton administration wore on, Clinton was accused of other misbehavior, for instance of a scandalous pardon in 1996. "60 Minutes," The New York Times and the majority of the media doubted Clinton's guilt. Even after he obviously lied under oath and obstructed justice, the same people now hounding Kerrey stood by Clinton. Then, for some reason, they were persuaded after his pardoning of Marc Rich that he was a crook. As I say, the workings of the Kultursmog are amazing. Its reasoning follows no clear line in ethics or logic. Now it is destroying the reputation of one of its own. Kerrey will never recover from the unsubstantiated charges being leveled against him. It is a contemptible performance. Equally contemptible is the moral grandstanding by those who cannot or will not attempt to imagine the chaos of battle. Great scenes of literature, for instance in "The Charterhouse of Parma" and "The Red Badge of Courage" should put us in mind of what Kerrey and his SEAL team endured that February night in 1969, when the seven of them let fly all their firepower at an enemy village. Without evidence of a war crime, Kerrey deserves apologies all around.