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Bush's Sleeper Cells
All it takes is a wink and a nod from the White House, and this network springs into action
by Eleanor Clift
August 27, 2004

Karl Rove makes Chuck Colson look like a girly man. Colson didn't have the audacity to go after John Kerry's military record when President Nixon was looking for dirt on antiwar leaders. After researching Kerry's medals, Colson, who now heads a prison ministry program, backed off. "Maybe Chuck knew he was going to find Jesus back then because he had a degree of shame," says a senior staffer to a Senate Republican.

The Kerry campaign thinks it has succeeded in discrediting the scurrilous attack on Kerry's military service, but Rove got what he wanted. Instead of talking about a failed war in Iraq and a new report that shows 1.3 million more Americans living in poverty, we're debating what happened in the Mekong Delta in 1968. The strategy "came straight from the West Wing," says the GOP staffer. "Nobody should be confused." Asked to explain, this Republican says Rove is smart enough to keep technical distance. But all it takes is a well-placed wink to activate a web of Bush family hit men, confidantes and deep-pocket donors. "They know what to do-it's like sleeper cells that get activated," he says, likening the players to "political terrorists."

They sprang into action in 2000 when Bush was running in the primaries against John McCain. After getting beat in New Hampshire by McCain, Bush's first event was at Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Standing next to Bush on the stage was a veteran who went right at McCain, questioning his Vietnam service while Bush remained silent. A whisper campaign told voters that McCain had a black child. (The McCains have an adopted daughter from Bangladesh.) McCain lost the primary; the veteran became a Bush administration appointee.

The charges advanced by the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth would never hold up in a court of law. These men would have us believe, contrary to Navy records and countless eye witnesses, that Kerry did not act heroically and had a grand plan to manipulate medals from the military.

Too bad Bob Dole got hauled into this mess. Once known principally as a GOP hatchet man, Dole had rehabbed himself over the years to war hero and sardonic wit. Then over the weekend he said all Swift Boat Veterans for Truth can't be Republican liars. It's the old where-there's-smoke-there's-fire routine. Why would Dole allow himself to be used like that? He must have forgotten how Bush's father provoked him during the 1988 GOP primaries with sleazy allegations. When Vice President Bush approached him on the Senate floor, Dole blurted out, "Quit lying about my record." The remark helped sink Dole's chance for the nomination.

My Republican mole on Capitol Hill says the green light has gone out to Republicans to do whatever it takes to get Bush elected. "This is the way we hold onto power," he says with disgust. Pollster John Zogby's survey of battleground states taken last week as the Swift Boat controversy raged shows no fundamental change in the race. "It's running its course, and it may boomerang," he says of the attack on Kerry's heroism. The fact that the sleeper network has gone nuclear is evidence of Bush's weakness, not his strength, says Zogby. "If [the Bush team] weren't seeing serious damage, they wouldn't be hitting so hard so early. The president is on the ropes; there's no other way of looking at it."

A lot of Vietnam vets will never forgive Kerry for accusing them of committing atrocities. Kerry has conceded some hyperbole in his 1971 Senate testimony, but didn't the Toledo Blade win a Pulitzer this year for uncovering Vietnam-era atrocities? Have we forgotten about the My Lai massacre and Zippo lighters burning down hooches? Maybe a few masochists want to debate whether Vietnam was a noble cause, but 58,000 of our soldiers died. The war was a waste whether you were on the right or the left. Kerry leveled most of his criticism at political leaders who didn't tell the truth, and who sanctioned "search and destroy" missions that invited war crimes. By the time Kerry testified in 1971, 44,000 American soldiers were already dead. The war had almost no popular support, yet another 14,000 lives would be lost.

The irony is that Kerry does have courage-the very quality this smarmy campaign seeks to denigrate. The rap on him is that he is slow to battle, that it takes a near-death experience to get him fully engaged. By assailing his heroism, the GOP may have done Kerry a favor. Maybe they've awakened a sleeping giant

2004 Newsweek, Inc.

Posted: September 7, 2004


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