Forty years ago, Barry Goldwater triumphed at the Republican convention with his offer to provide "a choice, not an echo." Overall, I'm glad that our two major political parties are more ideologically based than they used to be. (From 1972 to 2002, the average Republican in the House of Representative jumped from voting 63 percent conservative to 91 percent, according to the American Conservative Union, while the average Democrat's score dropped from 32 percent to 13 percent.)
And yet, be careful what you ask for. The problem with two differentiated parties (although still not as differentiated as some Christian conservatives would like) is that when a governor or president is a scoundrel, voters ideologically aligned with him don't have a good choice. They either have to vote for a person without character or for someone personally right but ideologically wrong.
That's where we are now, as Democrats and their press allies try to ignore or deal offhandedly with "Unfit for Command," the searing indictment of John Kerry's military record by 250 of his fellow Swift Boat veterans that is the top-selling book at both Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. The book shows why the debate over Kerry's Vietnam record is not about 35-year-old trivia but about whether a potential president imbeds in his brain a fantasy life.
For example, take Kerry's frequent claim to have spent a fighting Christmas in Cambodia in 1968. He said in 1986, "I have that memory which is seared -- seared -- in me." Over the years he has added seemingly fantasy details involving a CIA agent and delivering weapons to anti-Communist forces. "Unfit for Command" says the "seared" memory is all smoke. Kerry crewmates denied ever going to Cambodia. His commanding officer said the trip never happened.
Why have ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post not paid attention to these charges? The contrast with coverage of the Bush/National Guard story early this year is striking: According to the Media Research Center, "From Feb. 1-16, ABC, CBS and NBC aired 63 National Guard stories or interview segments on their morning and evening news programs."
My guess, based on conversations with leading journalists over the years, is that many are resolute: Can't aid and abet those right-wing Republicans, can we? That was the attitude among many New Jersey reporters covering Gov. Jim McGreevey. You've probably heard the story by now. Said governor, while posing as a dedicated family guy with a young daughter, made his homosexual lover, a public relations man, his personal advisor on homeland security matters (this is not a joke) and then appointed him to a $110,000-a-year job without specific responsibilities.
That all came out when McGreevey announced on Aug. 12 that he was resigning, thus pre-empting his now-estranged lover's threat either to blackmail or file a sexual harassment suit. But the basis of this news was old: The Trenton Times noted on Aug. 14 that New Jersey Democratic leaders had feared for two years that the affair was "a time bomb likely to go off."
Many Jersey journalists might have inquired had the governor been heterosexual and his appointee curvaceous, but even then (as with Bill Clinton) ideology often buries reportorial digging. With a gay or bisexual governor involved, reporters certainly did not want to be considered "homophobic."
Two political implications of the rule of ideology: First, character counts. Since ideologically committed voters have less opportunity to choose, behind-the-scenes politicos need to do character checks on prospective nominees and kick out those without self-control. That's in the self-interest of the political class -- otherwise, "In McGreevey's fall, we sinned all," and many staffers are out of work because of the self-indulgence of their boss.
Second, when the power-brokers mess up, a free press should be the last refuge for ousting scoundrels -- but we journalists can fulfill that function only when we grasp once again that our job is to tell the truth, even when it is politically inconvenient.