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On Point

War Stories and Cameras


by Austin Bay
March 26, 2008

John Kerry's "Christmas in Cambodia" yarn ignited the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Whatever your memory of the 2004 presidential campaign, Kerry's sudden silence about a wartime Christmas "seared" in his memory was a rare example of a citizens group (the Swifties) publicly backing down a powerful U.S. senator and a major-party presidential candidate.

Kerry's full quote, delivered in the midst of a 1986 Senate debate about aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, is rhetorically powerful:

"I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared -- seared -- in me."

Glorious oratory indeed, based, unfortunately, on a touch of truth (his naval service) magnified by chest-pounding falsehood.

There were, however, no cameras recording Christmas in the Mekong estuaries, which left Kerry with wiggle room. That's all a politician ever needs, of course, a silly centimeter of wiggle room. He accused the Swift vets of being motivated by partisan malevolence and personal animosity rather than historical veracity.

Kerry was dead right on the personal animosity angle. I still run into Vietnam veterans who rile at a memory "seared" in their minds -- that of Kerry pulling his made-for-television "Winter Soldier" routine, where he accused American soldiers of hideous war crimes. He rode those anti-American allegations into a political career.

Hillary Clinton is having her "Cambodian" moment -- her claim that she ducked sniper fire when she landed in Bosnia in 1996. Cameras, however, were rolling. The CBS News clip juxtaposing Clinton's stump speech rendition of her "snipers tale" to the tender hugs reality of her Bosnian excursion exposes the candidate's story as blarney.

This is blarney with damaging blowback, since Clinton's claim to superiority over her Democratic primary opponent, Barack Obama, is she possesses hard-core foreign policy expertise.

CBS earns qualified kudos. An Obama supporter, the comedian Sinbad, pulled the magic carpet from beneath Clinton's Bosnian crock. Sinbad was with Clinton in Bosnia, and he told a Washington Post political blog that "I think the only 'red-phone' (i.e., scary) moment was, 'Do we eat here or at the next place?'"

It appears that crack journalistic fact-checking by a major network did not catch Clinton -- breaking the duplicitous news took a celebrity anecdote relayed to a political gossip column in the midst of a nasty internecine Democratic Party political war. CBS had a reporter with Clinton in 1996 and a tape. Clinton has told "the sniper's tale" on several previous occasions. Next time, maybe ...

Obama has his own problems with truth in packaging. We have learned the electrifying candidate of "hope" has a political debt to "hate" -- and Chicago's sleazy political machine.

Excusing the videotaped anti-American hate speech of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as hot rhetoric reflecting deep historical suffering may pass muster in the Democratic primaries, but should Obama obtain the nomination, come November he will be running for president of the nation Wright insistently damned. If he really wants to become leader of the Free World, he will dump Wright sometime in September and acknowledge embedded bitterness stalls change?

As for John McCain? If he faces Clinton in November, expect to see her sniper's tale video followed by Vietnam War footage of McCain climbing into his Navy jet. If McCain faces Obama and "suffering" becomes an issue, a nuanced mind must ask if Harvard is a greater hell than Hanoi.

McCain is encountering the Alzheimer's innuendo for his claim (now retracted) that Iran supports al-Qaida in Iraq. He will have to take that heat. The al-Qaida-Iran relationship is very murky. Al-Qaida has numerous "affiliates," and Iranian intelligence has contacts with radical Sunni Muslim organizations (the Ayatollah Khomeini originally claimed his was an Islamic revolution, not a Shia revolution). But as for definitively aiding al-Qaida in Iraq, he was wise to retract. As for his age, nope, you can't retract a birth certificate.

While Clinton and Obama tread the political gutter, McCain ought to continue his global trek. McCain ought to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Green Berets training counter-terror cops in West Africa, destroyer sailors in the Strait of Hormuz, Marines on an assault ship in the Mediterranean, a carrier off South Korea.

And he should smile -- energetically -- as the cameras roll.

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