- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2006

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Can you call what backers of West Virginia Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan are doing to Republican challenger Chris Wakim “swiftboating?” Here’s the evidence. The media, the ethics-challenged Mr. Mollohan and his supporters are questioning whether Mr. Wakim can justifiably call himself a Persian Gulf War veteran when he never served in that military theater. This Swiftee-reminiscent move knocked a previously surging Mr. Wakim off message, at which time deep-pocketed Swiftboat-funder Bob Perry intervened, this time on behalf of the targeted.

At minimum, this is an echo of the scrutiny John Kerry’s military service received in the last presidential election. Except now, Democrats are doing the scrutinizing. Merits aside, this should raise hope that Democrats now can agree that a candidate who claims military accomplishments on the stump should be challenged if the claims don’t tell the whole story.

Whether you think a fact-check is warranted in this case depends on your definition of “Gulf War veteran.” It all started earlier this year when Mr. Wakim — a West Point graduate, 11-year Army officer and disabled vet — characterized himself that way on the stump. His opponents pounced. Mr. Wakim, who sustained back, elbow and knee injuries while serving, spent the war on active duty at Ft. Devens, Mass., 35 miles outside Boston. This paralleled a controversy over whether Mr. Wakim had trumped up a Harvard master’s degree by calling it a credential in “public policy” (It was actually in liberal arts).

It didn’t take Mollohan backers long to start touting Swiftee-like local vets who accused Mr. Wakim of stretching his military resume. “He led soldiers to the bus, but never made it to the Gulf War,” one anti-Wakim vet says in a particularly nasty commercial from a 527 group. (Last week the Wakim campaign filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against the group, West Virginia Values, alleging illegal coordination with Mr. Mollohan.)

No wonder Mr. Mollohan’s supporters went negative: A strong-campaigning Mr. Wakim had been gaining quickly in a conservative-trending district and Mr. Mollohan’s swirling ethics questions were threatening to make this year his last in the House. He is currently under investigation in connection with $202 million in earmarks to nonprofits he helped found which employ some of his campaign donors. Earlier this year he stepped down as ranking member of the House Ethics Committee.

The anti-Wakim line of attack literally boils down to which medals the Republican has — and it infuriates him. “The crux of the issue is pretty simple,” Mr. Wakim told me recently. “Alan Mollohan is trying to discredit the fact that I am a West Point graduate, that I am a Gulf War veteran, that I served in the infantry for over 11 years, that I am a disabled vet. He doesn’t understand how the Army works…What happens in one end of the front is the same thing — is all related to what happens on the other.”

So, who’s right? Technically speaking, the law is on Mr. Wakim’s side. The U.S. Code defines a veteran of a given conflict as “any veteran who served in the active military, naval, or air service during a period of war.” If you served, you helped the war effort, and according to 38 U.S.C. 101(12) you can call yourself a veteran of that conflict.

But perception is a different matter. The man on the street can be forgiven for thinking that a Gulf War vet — just like a Vietnam vet in Vietnam — would need to have spent time in Iraq or Kuwait or another Middle Eastern country to earn that designation. It’s also true that the Veterans of Foreign Wars stipulates that members must hold one or more foreign-theater campaign medals or badges to join. That’s more than enough ammunition for Mollohan backers.

Of course, the fact that the issue is even being discussed means that the Mollohan camp has used some variant of “swiftboating” to cut down a challenger. It was probably quite effective: Election handicappers have started calling the race a likely Democratic retention.

This should quiet some of the more histrionic Democratic indignation over the questioning of Mr. Kerry’s military service. Last month at Washington’s Phoenix Park Hotel, for instance, I listened to a visibly angry Paul Bucha, board chairman of the liberal veterans’ group VETPAC, vow: “Let no person think that they have been anointed in such a way as to question the validity of service and patriotism of anybody who has had the courage to don the uniform of this great country.” The context was the effort to question Mr. Kerry’s Purple Hearts.

This gets things precisely backward. If a candidate wants to use his military biography to seek high office, why shouldn’t people be allowed to corroborate his self-portrayal for the voting public? In a democracy, elections are one of the few things more hallowed than Mr. Kerry’s or anyone else’s service. There are no free passes.

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at the Washington Times and a 2006 Phillips Foundation journalism fellow.

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