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Richard Cohen

Fighting Words in New York

By Richard Cohen
Saturday, September 4, 2004; Page A31

NEW YORK -- Outside my high school one distant but memorable day, a crowd gathered to watch a fight between a particularly nasty punk and someone he had bullied. To my immense satisfaction, the fight soon went against the punk. He went down and the good guy got on top of him for the coup de grace. Suddenly, a friend of the punk stepped from the crowd and stomped the good guy -- once, twice and it was over. That guy, I'm sure, is now a Republican.

The willingness to fight hard and fight dirty is something I both admire and loathe -- and I apologize in advance for my ambivalence. It suggests passion, for a cause or for a man, and in the Republican Party at the moment there are both kinds. The constant distortion of John Kerry's record, a drizzle of deceit that eventually soaks the listener in a fat, wet lie, is not to be admired. But the reasons for it are a different matter entirely.

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President Bush engaged in some distortions in his convention acceptance speech, the most important being his persistent conflation of the war on terrorism with the war in Iraq. The signal failure of the latter is that it not only diverted the United States from its task -- rooting out al Qaeda and disposing of Osama bin Laden -- but it has demonstrably made things worse. It's nice that Saddam Hussein is in the pokey. Whether Americans are better off as a result is an assertion that has yet to be demonstrated.

The constant repetition of a distortion wearies the critic. For the moment, then, I give up. But if you look back a month to the Democratic convention and see what has happened since, it sort of takes your breath away. Kerry, triumphant and accepting the nomination with a smart (but silly) salute, has been disparaged as a phony who lied about his combat record and then came home from war to smear his buddies.

This is a Category Five lie, one so immense and brazen it almost compels you to wonder whether there is an element of truth to it. It is the functional equivalent of the question that's withdrawn in court: Sorry, your honor. Bush virtually said the allegations were not true, but he has not repudiated them -- and so, in the minds of the jury, they stand. What's more, they were followed by a string of misrepresentations spit from the mouth of Zell Miller, as mad an eruption of hate as I have witnessed in politics. Some time back, Kerry must have dissed Miller. This was personal.

The Bush campaign knows what it is doing. Bush is a minority president, elected with less than half the votes, and often 50 percent still eludes him in the polls. The campaign is engaged in hand-to-hand combat for just enough votes -- a mandate of one, if need be. It is infused with such a sense of righteousness that, like the Crusaders of old, it can commit atrocity after atrocity on the way to Jerusalem. All that matters is the goal. God understands.

Kerry in the meantime has fumbled for a message. The one he thought he had -- his commendable Vietnam service -- has been tarnished, if not wrecked. He's been forced to present himself as an incrementalist. In Iraq he would not have charged TR-like up the hill but would have proceeded cautiously. His rallying cry is not "Charge!" but the blinking of a traffic signal: "Walk." This is a parody of his position, but parodies are exaggerations, not sheer concoctions. There's something there.

Incrementalism is not a cause -- it is no reason to fight dirty and hardly a reason to get up in the morning and vote. It is a sane appeal to reason, a marriage gone stale. It lacks passion and yeast, the emotional jet fuel of the lusty adulterer or the religious zealot. What animates the Democratic left, the anti-Bushies, is the war in Iraq and the infuriatingly closed mind of George Bush. To them, to us, to me, John Kerry offers little because, mostly, he gives little.

The GOP convention was successful because it was part of the overall Republican campaign. It was a loathsome affair, suffused with lies and anger, but also beautiful to watch, like a nature show about some wild animal, amoral and intent only on survival. Speaker after speaker stomped on Kerry because, really, he had made himself the entirety of the Democratic campaign. It's a variation of what I learned in high school: When the man is the message, trash the man.

cohenr@washpost.com


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