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Absolutism leaves W no wiggle room
by Brian Dickerson
Detroit Free Press
August 23, 2004

Let's accept, for the sake of argument, President George W. Bush's insistence that his campaign has had nothing to do with the veracity-challenged slime machine that calls itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

After all, as Sigmund Freud might have observed, sometimes a venal disinformation campaign waged by sewer-dwelling apparatchiks with longtime ties to senior Bush campaign officials is, well, just a banana.

But even if we accept the president's claims as true -- and honestly, what reasonable American could deny this White House the presumption of good faith? -- the Swift boat controversy raises an important question:

Do honorable candidates for public office have a moral obligation to defend their opponents against soft-money slander, even if they are only innocent beneficiaries of someone else's lies?

Not his job

The conventional wisdom among those who practice politics for a living is that a candidate has no such duty, especially if the third party making scurrilous claims against one's opponent is genuinely beyond the candidate's control.

The veterans behind the current million-dollar mud-fest, Bush's defenders point out, were spewing anti-Kerry venom long before W came along.

Calling the Swift boat snipers out now, the Bushies reason, would serve only to bolster the charge that the White House bears ultimate responsibility for a slander campaign that dates to the early '70s.

The problem with this impeccable cost-benefit analysis is that it flies in the face of the moral absolutism that is both the signature of Bush's presidency and his central argument for re-election.

In the post-9/11 world, the president has repeatedly argued, there's no room for neutrality and no such thing as an innocent bystander; you're with us or against us. Allies who dither on the sidelines are as morally culpable as the enemies plotting our destruction.

Worst of all, in Bush's moral universe, are those nabobs of nuance who suggest that some of the terrorists' grievances may be legitimate, even if their methods are out of bounds.

In the Gospel according to W, motives are irrelevant. Methods are what distinguish the good guys from "the evil ones."

Those who bomb buses for personal advantage and those who bomb them out of a sense of messianic mission are the same in God's eyes, or Dick Cheney's.

Blazing straddles

Remaining above the fray in such a black-and-white world is problematic. When your whole presidency has been about drawing lines in the sand, straddling the fence isn't really an option.

So reasonable voters are asking: Where does Bush stand?

Does he believe his opponent fabricated the accounts of his own valor in combat, as the Swift Boat Veterans group has asserted?

Does he believe that slander is an evil that debases the political process itself?

Or does he make a practical distinction between slander campaigns that boost his re-election effort and those that abet his opponent's?

Strictly speaking, Bush doesn't have to take sides. He didn't produce the Swift boaters attack ads, and he can continue to argue, as his subordinates have thus far, that it's up to the voters to decide whether his opponent's detractors are credible.

But that would be so agile, so nuanced -- so French. Is that any way for a straight shooter like W to talk?

Posted: August 30, 2004


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