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A Swift-Moving Story

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006 9:57 AM

Is Jack Murtha being unfairly Swift-boated?

The left side of the commentariat is up in arms about my piece on a conservative Web site raising questions about the congressman's two Purple Hearts.

Here's the report by the Cybercast News Service: Check it out and reach your own conclusions.

Look, anyone can dig into a congressman's record, and Cybercast (which is part of Brent Bozell's conservative media criticism group) quoted people on the record, dug up a bunch of clips and gave the Pennsylvania Democrat a chance to respond. Editor in Chief David Thibault told me that Murtha had placed himself in the crossfire by becoming a leading voice for a U.S. pullout in Iraq.

What, exactly, does whatever Murtha did near Danang in 1967 have to do with the soundness of his stance on Iraq? In the case of John Kerry, you could argue that the Swift Boat Vets -- even though the media poked significant holes in their account -- was challenging the biography of a presidential candidate who had put his Vietnam heroism at the center of his campaign. But what is Jack Murtha running for, other than reelection in his district?

Of course, politics ain't beanbag, and Murtha, as a 37-year Marine vet, must be accustomed to hostile fire. The Purple issue, in fact, has come up in some of his past campaigns. But now it's getting national play -- and sparking a liberal backlash.

Arianna Huffington is appalled:

"Last week, President Bush said that he would welcome 'an honest debate about Iraq' -- as long as 'the tone of this debate is respectful.' Oh, really? Then he should start by denouncing the despicable smear campaign being launched against Jack Murtha. The attacks, calling into question the military record of a decorated 37-year war veteran, and launched on the eve of Murtha's powerful appearance on '60 Minutes', are a vile, noxious, and blatantly obvious attempt to keep the press and the public from engaging in that 'honest debate about Iraq.'

"They are the lowest form of character assassination -- cranked out by the GOP attack machine with ruthless efficiency (and almost comical predictability). A belly flop into the Beltway sewer that degrades a political culture already so befouled it might seem beyond further degradation. But then we get this effluvium -- and the stench hanging over our democracy becomes unbearable. Bush must make it clear, immediately and in no uncertain terms, that, as a country, we need zero tolerance for this contemptible attempt to shove the reputation of a man who put his life on the line for his country into the media wood chipper.

"If Mrs. Alito cried over some of the questions asked of her husband, what should Mrs. Murtha do, slit her wrists?"

E.J. Dionne is on a similar wavelength: "A crowd that regularly defends President Bush for serving in the Texas Air National Guard instead of going to Vietnam has continued its war on actual Vietnam veterans. An outfit called the Cybercast News Service last week questioned the circumstances surrounding the awarding of two Purple Hearts to Murtha because of wounds he suffered in the Vietnam War.

"John Kerry, as well as John McCain -- who faced scurrilous attacks on his war record when he was running against Bush in the 2000 South Carolina primary -- could have warned Murtha: If you're a Vietnam veteran, don't you dare get in the way of George W. Bush . . .

"Authentic war heroes (including McCain) often play down their own heroism. In any event, what we know about Murtha, McCain, Kerry and, yes, Bailey, is that they served in combat in Vietnam. What we know about Bush and Vice President Cheney ('I had other priorities in the '60s than military service') is that they didn't.

"What's maddening here is the unblushing hypocrisy of the right wing and the way it circulates -- usually through Web sites or talk radio -- personal vilification to abort honest political debate. Murtha's views on withdrawing troops from Iraq are certainly the object of legitimate contention. Many in Murtha's party disagree with him. But Murtha's right-wing critics can't content themselves with going after his ideas. They have to try to discredit his service."

Blackfive is skeptical, but no Murtha fan:

"Look, like with John Kerry, I'm more concerned about what the guy did after the war than during the war 40 years ago -- especially, when the man is in a position of power and influence.

"Supposedly, there are 'differing' accounts of heroism about John Murtha when he was in Viet Nam. There are always differing stories of combat . . . ask anyone who's been in combat.

"John Murtha needs his chops busted, but attacking Murtha's service record is callous and craven in my opinion.

"If you are looking for a reason to go after John Murtha for his appeasing and cut-n-run demands, it's not in his forty year old service record."

Blogger Bret Prelutsky, at the conservative Town Hall site, asks: "How is it that a totally undistinguished Pennsylvania congressman named John Murtha can achieve overnight canonization in the liberal media by demanding a deadline for the withdrawal of the American military from Iraq -- a deadline which can serve no other purpose but to demoralize our troops and encourage our enemy? And if you have the effrontery to question the congressman's judgment, you can count on being reminded in no uncertain terms that Rep. Murtha served in the military.

"Yes, he did . . . a very long time ago. However, for the past 30-odd years, he has fed off the public trough just like all those other lay-a-bouts in Washington."

Actually, Murtha didn't leave the Marines until 1990.

Murray Waas takes me to task for not digging deeper:

"The article tells us very little about Thibault himself. Had the reporters done a simple Internet search, they would have discovered this biography of Thibault posted online which describes him as a 'senior producer for a televised news magazine' broadcast and sponsored by the Republican National Committee. I dunno, but I for one, would have wanted to know that. Thibault's background and those engaging in the Swiftboating of Murtha would be relevant to any news story on this issue, I would think. And so would some independent examination by the Post as to whether there is even any veracity to the charges."

I would welcome a deeper examination, as I had three hours to write the story on deadline. But I provided the needed context about Cybercast -- which was formerly called Conservative News Service -- and I'd note that the military, after all, decides when to hand out the medals.

Bill Quick at Daily Pundit says:

"The reality is, lots of medals were handed out in Vietnam under odd or questionable circumstances, and only their recipients will ever know the truth about them." But then he goes ahead and likens Murtha to Benedict Arnold.

National Review's Byron York gets in Al Gore's face:

"In an alternate universe, coverage of Al Gore's speech in Washington Monday might begin with the former vice president's ringing defense of the virtually unlimited exercise of presidential power in times of emergency. 'The threat of additional terror strikes is all too real and their concerted efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction does create a real imperative to exercise the powers of the executive branch with swiftness and agility,' Gore told the audience at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall. 'Moreover, there is in fact an inherent power that is conferred by the Constitution to the president to take unilateral action to protect the nation from a sudden and immediate threat, but it is simply not possible to precisely define in legalistic terms exactly when that power is appropriate and when it is not.'

"An alternate-universe report might note that Gore's position -- stated by the man formerly a heartbeat away from being commander-in-chief -- boldly contradicted the claims of Democrats who argue that, in the NSA-al Qaeda surveillance matter, the president's authority to order warrantless surveillance of possible terror suspects is tightly bound by the limits imposed in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Gore's speech might then set off an intense debate among Democrats about the extent of presidential authority.

"But that's the alternate-universe version. While Gore actually did say the words quoted above, that soundbite was just one small part of a long speech in which Gore argued just the opposite, that President Bush not only does not have the authority to conduct the war on terror as he has been doing but that his policies have crossed the line into criminal acts . . .

"The crowd was thrilled. Many people in the audience, it seemed, wanted nothing more than for Al Gore to tell them that everything they believed was right. And they got what they came for."

Salon blogwatcher Peter Daou says television blew it:

"A former Vice-President of the United States delivers a major speech accusing George W. Bush of breaking the law. What do all three cable news nets cover under the 'Breaking News' banner? An overturned tanker truck on a New York highway. THIS is the problem for the left. And as I've said a hundred times: if the Dem establishment doesn't go after the media institutionally, things simply will not change. It's astonishing to me that they haven't gotten it yet."

Hmmm . . . I wonder what he means by "go after."

The post-Abramoff era has officially begun, with lawmakers who couldn't get enough lobbyist-generated cash and golfing trips suddenly acting shocked and appalled:

"House Republican leaders laid out a proposal Tuesday to rewrite Congressional rules governing lobbying as they tried to limit the political damage from an election-year scandal over undue influence and access afforded to lobbyists," says the New York Times.

"In the first of a series of competing initiatives, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert called for a ban on Congressional travel underwritten by outside groups, tougher restrictions on gifts and favors, and the elimination of privileges for lawmakers-turned-lobbyists in response to three bribery and corruption convictions that have reached into the House of Representatives. Inquiries related to those criminal acts are continuing.

"Congressional Democrats plan to issue their own overhaul plan on Wednesday and Senate Republicans are preparing one as well in what one longtime watchdog described as a bidding war touched off by guilty pleas to corruption charges by the high-powered lobbyist Jack Abramoff and an associate and a House Republican's admission to taking bribes."

Bill Kristol, who provided some of the intellectual underpinning for the invasion of Iraq, is eyeing a new target:

"An unrepentant rogue state with a history of sponsoring terrorists seeks to develop weapons of mass destruction. The United States tries to work with European allies to deal with the problem peacefully, depending on International Atomic Energy Agency inspections and United Nations sanctions. The Europeans are generally hesitant and wishful. Russia and China are difficult and obstructive. Eventually the reality of the threat, the obduracy of the rogue state regime in power, becomes too obvious to be ignored.

"This is not a history lesson about Iraq. These are today's headlines about Iran, where the regime is openly pursuing its ambition to become a nuclear power. 'But this time diplomacy has to be given a chance to work,' the doves coo. 'Maybe this time Israel will take care of the problem,' some hawks whisper. Both are being escapist.

"Doves profess concern about Iran's nuclear program and endorse various diplomatic responses to it. But they don't want even to contemplate the threat of military action. Perhaps military action won't ultimately be necessary. But the only way diplomatic, political, and economic pressure has a chance to work over the next months is if the military option -- or various military options -- are kept on the table.

"Meanwhile, some hawks, defenders of the Iraq war, would prefer to deal with one challenge at a time. They hope we can kick the can down the road a while longer, or that a deus ex machine -- a Jewish one! -- will appear to do our job for us. But great powers don't get to avoid their urgent responsibilities because they'd prefer to deal with only one problem at a time, or to slough those responsibilities off onto others."

This strikes me as just the opening salvo in a very important debate -- one in which critics may point out that the Iraq thing didn't turn out too well.

Josh Marshall's new investigative site, Daily Muck, is already into the mud.

At Beltway Blogroll, Daniel Glover has words for the right's Alito bloggers:

"I recoiled at much of the content written by the GOP-approved bloggers last week. Why? Because the content they wrote from Washington, while being feted by the Republican Party, did not pack the same punch as their normal fare. Too often, they sounded more like unofficial stenographers for the GOP than the passionate, independent watchdogs that they normally are.

"The bloggers occasionally provided powerful commentary on the actual confirmation hearings. They also dedicated plenty of space to experts ignored by the mainstream media, which is among the praiseworthy functions of blogs.

"But the bloggers let pass a rare opportunity to grill senators and top officials about topics that matter to the bloggers. They let their sources set the agenda. Scott Johnson of Power Line did pursue one personal mission -- identifying who is responsible for delaying an unrelated judicial nomination -- but he appears to have been the exception to the rule.

"The sessions revived, and arguably legitimized, criticism that at least some right-leaning bloggers are tools of the GOP. The events also raised questions about where, if at all, lines should be drawn between political parties, party-focused blogs and sometimes-journalistic blogs."

Hillary's blast at Congress as being run like a "plantation" brought this scathing headline from the New York Post: "BUSH GIVES HILL HELL."

"In a rare attack, President Bush's spokesman yesterday said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was 'out of bounds' when she used the racially charged term 'plantation' to blast Republican leaders in Congress."

Okay, so it was only Scott. And it wasn't quite hell. But why ruin a good headline?

Ed Morrissey asks the following question about Hillary: "Is she out of her mind? First her husband decides somehow that he is an African-American by claiming to be the 'first black President' because he comes from a broken family. Now Hillary, who by the way carpetbagged her way into the Senate by running for election for a state in which she'd never lived, now claims she's a slave because the Democrats can't get a majority in either house of Congress . . .

"That victimization and self-pity for a group of rich idiots like Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Clinton herself, and the rest of the incompetent boobs of the Democratic power structure typifies the worldview of the loony left wing. Their lack of ability simply can't be their own fault, and their lack of connection to voters can't have anything to do with their failed policies and empty, hysterical rhetoric. It must be the fault of eeeeeeeeeevil Republicans, the 'slavemasters' of Congress who actually won more elections, got more votes, and continue to grow their majority status despite the absolute self-assurance of Democrats who think they should be granted control despite the outcome of the elections."

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