The Cruelest Month

Andrew F. Adams is a regular contributor. Respond at [email protected]

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What do they say about August? It's the cruelest month?

Normally, this month is the break in election hysteria, a time for politicians to hit the beach and recharge their batteries for the slugfest ahead. But this August has been overtaken by a more frenzied and offensive ambiance than ever before. First there were the 9/11 Commission's findings, which lit a flash fire underneath Washington, hot enough to singe a few eyebrows before being relegated to the back burner.

Then, after the Democratic Convention, newspapers were talking about Swift Boat Veterans for Truth instead of John Kerry's convention afterglow. Since these SBVT ads hit the airwaves to limited play in Ohio, Wisconsin and West Virginia, they have been denounced by members of both parties, and have proven to be completely false, contradicting naval records and papers that gave the accuser a bronze star of his own for the same incident.

However, there is one denunciation that is glaringly absent. President Bush's refusal to denounce the ads is a not-so-subtle way of calling Kerry's actions in Vietnam into doubt. Both the President and his campaign manager have purposefully avoided calling for the removal of the ads, sidestepping only to say that they oppose all outside influence in the campaign from so-called 527 groups.

This is a time-tested political battle tactic: make a charge, no matter how outrageous, then sit back and let the media do all the breathless yelling and fighting for you. All that a claim needs to become true is a few headlines and some time. After a while, the buzz surrounding a topic becomes the topic, and by the time any sort of retraction comes out, it is buried on page A27 and forgotten by TV and talk radio.

But no matter if Kerry rightfully won four or zero medals, most of the voting public come November will not remember the details, only that there was a dispute over the legitimacy of Kerry's medals. And that little shred of doubt is enough to sway some of the handful of swing voters. Already, Kerry's numbers have taken a five-point hit, giving Bush a slight lead, according to a recent L.A. Times poll.

Imagine this scenario: someone running for ASUC president has their buddy call the opponent a bastard in The Daily Californian. Pretty soon everyone is talking about whether or not he is a bastard, and after the Daily Cal finds evidence that he is not, it is published on page 3 because the retraction is nowhere near as interesting as the charge. Then the candidate can say "my opponent? Well, I heard he might be a bastard," and it all seems reasonable.

In the end, all the Bush/Cheney campaign has to do is continue the discussion of the validity of Kerry's war record, and any doubts, no matter if they are real or not, become the story. As long as TV journalists open their stories with "the ongoing spat" about Kerry's record, Bush has won by turning one of Kerry's strengths into a more gray area.

The old saying "perception is reality" is more true in Washington than anywhere else. If it looks like a dispute, it is. Even if its not.


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