The people running the Bush campaign are political alchemists: They can take anything and turn it into dirt.
Still naive, even after Swift boats and everything else, I couldn't believe that Bush's "nuisance" salvo would work. In fact, when I first heard the accusation (on a right-wing radio talk show), I couldn't even understand it. John Kerry, quoted in a New York Times Magazine profile a week ago, said that he hopes to see the threat of terrorism reduced some day to the level of a minor nuisance. The Bush campaign immediately launched a big offensive on the theme that Kerry thinks terrorism is merely a nuisance.
Huh? Isn't there a difference between hoping that something will happen and thinking that it has happened already? Do you have to be mired in logic to suspect that these two states of mind are pretty much the opposite of each other? The distinction between how you want things to be and how they really are seems to be a particularly tough one for President Bush himself. But to count on voters to share this confusion is pretty courageous.
The media -- with an undiscriminating appetite for issues and a professional commitment to be fair and balanced between Republicans and Democrats, true and false, good and evil, crunchy and creamy, or any other dichotomy the news confronts them with -- were helpless to resist. By Monday the preposterous and baseless question of whether Kerry thinks that terrorism is just a nuisance had become a major campaign issue. Bush brought it up the first time he opened his mouth at Wednesday's presidential debate.
By the weekend other issues, such as Mary Cheney, had been layered on top. Kerry, his stock soaring as polls showed him the big winner in the debates, probably wasn't too badly hurt. Bush, though, was not hurt at all. Now, with the race tightening up, there will be fresh issues emanating from the Bush-Cheney laboratories, all made entirely of artificial ingredients. Pick a sentence -- any sentence -- and see how it's done.
President Bush: "My opponent, you see, wrote -- or he helped to write -- this document, this so-called Declaration of Independence. And in it, see, he says something about how we hold these truths to be self-evident. Now, self-evident is just a fancy word -- or actually it's two words: Of course I know that! I can count! -- it's just a fancy way of saying you don't have to say anything because folks already know it.
"In other words, he's saying that you don't have to tell the truth. Well, I just happen to disagree with that. I think the truth is one of the most important things in our great country. The truth is American. And it's good. It's good to tell the truth. But my opponent disagrees with that. He thinks you don't need to tell the truth. And I happen to think that's wrong. It's a difference in philosophy, you see."
Newspaper Headline: "Kerry Opposes Truth, Bush Charges; Opponent Responds, 'Issue Is Complex' "
Sen. Kerry: "First of all, I'd like to thank President Bush for his important remarks about telling the truth. I also think the truth is very important. But so is falsehood. Falsehood is also very important. Truth and falsehood are both very important, and a president has to understand that. And I have a plan to increase both truth and falsehood by 23 percent over the next seven years by a tax increase on just two people: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.
"Now, as to this document, this Declaration of Independence, my position is very clear. I did sign it. But I didn't read it. And I opposed it before I signed it. And again after I signed it. I think it's an important document, with important values for our country. But I also think that it is flatly wrong. I signed it because I disagree with it -- because only after it is signed and enacted can it be amended."
Newspaper News Analysis: "Is the Truth Self-Evident?" (excerpt):
"Some experts question Mr. Bush's analysis of the Declaration of Independence. They say it should not necessarily be interpreted as intending to criticize the concept of truth as directly as the president seems to be suggesting. 'The president's interpretation is unique,' said a leading constitutional scholar yesterday. A few critics were even harsher. 'It's really very unique,' one of them said.
"But other experts believe that the president has a point. The late philosopher of language Jacques Derrida, reached just seconds before he died last week, said, 'The Declaration of Independence is a text, which ultimately swallows itself and spits itself out. The concept of truth in this context has no meaning. Although I am French, I strongly support President Bush for making absurdity a top priority.' Sen. Kerry now concedes that the Declaration of Independence 'should have been more carefully worded.' But the damage to his campaign has been done.
"A longtime political strategist outside the Kerry camp yesterday said that Kerry should have pointed out that the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, which makes it highly unlikely that he was involved in writing it. But several other consultants warned against this strategy.
" 'It's just too risky,' one said, 'to call the president of the United States a liar.' "
The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.