NEW YORK -- Maybe John Kerry should take it as a compliment. George W. Bush and his gang have decided that the only way they can hold on to power is to throw so much dirt at Kerry that he ends up looking like Pigpen. In the process, they are painting the Democratic Party as a collection of lily-livered, America-hating, French-loving, defense-destroying, United Nations-kowtowing girlie men.
Oh, yes, and the Bush boys are also calling for bipartisanship and national unity.
As one Democrat put it, the "Republicans have dealt in cynicism and skepticism" and "mastered the art of division and diversion."
The Democrat who spoke those words happens to be Zell Miller. That would be the old Zell Miller, from his keynote speech to the 1992 Democratic National Convention -- a speech, by the way, that was infinitely less harsh than Miller's performance on Wednesday. It's impressive that Miller has proved to be such a fast learner in the folkways of the crowd he's now running with. Miller will proudly stand as the man who gave one of the most vicious and demagogic convention speeches in the television age. From Miller's speech, you could assume that the Democrats had nominated Saddam Hussein from his jail cell.
How else to explain the stuff Miller just made up? "Today's Democratic leaders," he said, "see America as an occupier, not a liberator." Excuse me, but which Democratic leader is he talking about?
"In their warped way of thinking," Miller said of members of the party he addressed 12 years ago, "America is the problem, not the solution. They don't believe there is any real danger in the world except that which America brings upon itself through our clumsy and misguided foreign policy." He is talking here about a Democratic Party that rallied to President Bush after Sept. 11 and was almost unanimous in supporting the war against the Taliban.
"Senator Kerry," Miller added at one point, "has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations." Has made it clear? Here's what Kerry said in his acceptance speech last month: "I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security." Now that's pretty clear.
Thank the Lord that there are still Republicans who have not been poisoned by the philosophy of win-at-any-price. In the early hours of Thursday morning, I ran into Sen. John McCain, who spontaneously brought up Miller's speech. "I think it backfires," McCain said, his face a picture of genuine astonishment. "It makes [Pat] Buchanan's speech in Houston look like milquetoast." McCain was referring to Buchanan's "culture wars" speech, widely thought to have damaged the first President Bush at the 1992 Republican convention.
But these Bush guys are smart. Note that they made sure the most incendiary words spoken at this convention came from the mouth of a nominal Democrat. If the backlash McCain predicts develops, they can lay the blame on old Zell, the disgruntled member of Kerry's party. And Miller was so rabid that when Dick Cheney started piling his own mud on Kerry a few minutes later, the vice president looked like a mild-mannered college professor.
But Cheney was no less adept than Miller at distorting Kerry's record. Consider this Cheney characterization of what Kerry said in his acceptance speech. "He declared at the Democratic convention that he will forcefully defend America -- after we have been attacked. My fellow Americans, we have already been attacked. We are faced with an enemy who seeks the deadliest of weapons to use against us, and we cannot wait for the next attack."
What Kerry actually said -- in a speech that repeatedly referred to the ongoing war on terrorism -- was this: "Let there be no mistake: I will never hesitate to use force when it is required. Any attack will be met with a swift and a certain response." The old Zell was right: Cheney's sleight of hand here is a perfect example of the "art of division and diversion" -- and distortion.
Personally, I'm sorry the Republicans did all this, because I had intended to write about what a masterly political speech Laura Bush had given the night before. She pushed all the right buttons in appealing to moderate undecided voters. But subtlety of the sort the first lady practiced carried an expiration time of exactly 24 hours.
If reelecting the president requires leaving the country more broken and more divided along party lines than it already is, we now know this a price those in power are happy to pay.