- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

It would serve Dan Rather and CBS News better to devote their current maniacal efforts to prove that the documents (which they used as the basis for their now-descredited story on President Bush’s national guard service) had at least a billion-in-one chance of being true, and instead tried to uncover those who had perpetrated the forgery on the network.

A Nixonian bunker psychology in those quarters, however, apparently continues — although there are now reports that Mr. Rather may concede the documents are false while contending the story itself is true. If Mr. Rather is saying that, it is one of the most appalling and self-destructive rationalizations ever uttered by a major media figure in America.

Much has already been written about the details of this forgery/hoax. Little has been said of the environment that enabled it to appear. Slightly before, and then increasingly during and after the recent Republican convention in New York, it began to be realized by many serious Democratic political operatives that they might indeed lose this election. Only weeks before, with narrow but steady leads in the polls, Mr. Bush seemingly unable to respond to months of political and personal battering, and their own convention an apparent success, the signs that something was wrong had begun to appear. Although quickly rationalized away, the lack of a bump in the polls for Mr. Kerry was one sign. The lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Kerry himself, his patrician style, and a singular lack of clarity in what his administration of the government might be, was another.

The “hatred” for Mr. Bush by the Democratic liberal base, unforgiving for Florida 2000 and frightened by four years more of conservative judicial nominees, tax cuts and free-market government reform, has been noticeably intense for more than a year. Having its breath taken away by military events in Afghanistan and Iraq following September 11, this hard-core opposition found new energy in its criticism of the administration’s inept handling of the post-military operations in Iraq, the residues of the recent recession and in mocking Mr. Bush’s personal foibles. A largely sympathetic media joined in, and with political cartoons, late-night TV jokes, celebrity endorsements, repetitive opinion columns and well-funded TV ads, it seemed in certain circles that the Bush term, like his father’s, would only be four years.

A number of myths were also perpetrated. One was that most voters had already made up their minds, and that only a very small number would now decide the election. Another was that entire Democratic Party electorate shared the intense and bitter hatred of Mr. Bush. A third was that Mr. Bush was an unlikeable and inept political campaigner whose cohorts and appointees were so unpopular that the election of a Democrat in 2004 was almost a certainty.

I don’t think, seven weeks before Election Day, any of these are true.

In this environment, creeps an insatiable panic – a desperation to find some way to rescue the campaign to restore a Democrat in the White House and end the acute pain of being out of power. Inasmuch as Mr. Kerry has given his campaign no charisma, no clear alternative program, little sense he can better manage the critical war we are now in, there remains for some only a reckless hope that a craven and mean-spirited strategy of personal attack would save the day.

I am not suggesting that the Kerry campaign is complicit in the CBS hoax. I am suggesting that the whole subculture created to defeat Mr. Bush has fostered a political climate in which hoax and forgery can be justified as a substitute for new and better ideas; and in which a media caught up in this subculture would forsake its own rules, patience and rigor in confirming its sources; and judgment in deciding when a story is sound and unimpeachable.

Let’s speculate for a moment that, even if the CBS documents are forged, Mr. Bush did all the things the story alleges he did. I say it would make little difference to voters. These events happened more than 30 years ago. A variation of this story has appeared every time Mr. Bush has run for office. Similarly, the attempts by some Republicans to demean Mr. Kerry’s war record is equally pointless. I recently wrote that Mr. Kerry was a “war hero.” I accept his war record, and reject those attempts to undermine it in a political campaign.

Mr. Kerry passed an opportunity to denounce the CBS story. He has almost become irrelevant to the 2004 campaign, a campaign in which both sides are indulging in personal attack, but only one side is presenting a clear and understandable program for the next four years.

Many days remain, and Mr. Kerry, through some unexpected event, resource or cause, may yet recover the momentum and win. But I think Mr. Bush and his campaign much prefer the present circumstances in which their victory does not depend on a caveat with long odds.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1972.

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