Bob Dole's nasty swipe at John Kerry's war wounds this week made you understand why Viagra has been losing market share to Cialis. The sight of that bitter old face piling on to protest that Kerry did not bleed enough is instant detumescence.
The worst thing about the Swift boat moment has been the steady march of aggrieved sexagenarians across our TV screens, banging the hollow drums of their pasts. They were heroes once and young, but look what politics has wrought: Gabby, flabby John O'Neill, the author of "Unfit for Command"; shifty George Elliott; Van Odell with his sorrowful Wyatt Earp mustache; now-you-see-him-now-you-don't Bush campaign worker Ken Cordier. As the vets talk and talk on the cable shows, the inevitable black-and-white blowup in the background of the young Kerry's big, melancholy chin and soulful eyes gives reproachful testimony to better selves buried in the watery past of Vietnam.
It's Karl Rove 101. Just as he is now said by campaign aides to be gleeful about bringing the Republican convention to the hostile territory of New York City, Rove is surely enjoying the Swift boat roadshow. The Bushies can deny the linkage all they want, but can't you detect Rove's demonic chuckle as the seven malcontents, backed by lightly laundered Texas cash, come trundling through the talk shows? "Rove lives for this stuff," says James Moore, the co-author of "Bush's Brain," the book on Rove that is now a documentary film opening in Washington next week. "Not just attacking Kerry's strengths but also doing something that distracts reporters' attention from looking for the real stories." Or as former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta put it testily after listening to O'Neill obfuscating on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," "Today Senator Kerry carries shrapnel in his thigh, as distinct from President Bush, who carries two fillings in his teeth from his service in the Alabama National Guard, which seems to be his only time that he showed up."
All of this will subside as the sun sinks on Labor Day. But Rove has brilliantly judged how much and how long the media can be relied on to run with a story until it plays itself out. It doesn't matter if the revisionist Swifties are discredited as long as a touch of virus enters the voter bloodstream to flow through the veins and arteries of blogs and cable and talk radio and op-ed columns and contradicting ads. The war record becomes "the disputed war record." "Democrats always make the mistake of believing the media will be a referee and truth will prevail," James Wolcott, the author of "Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants," told me. "It's as if they have learned nothing from Paula Jones and Whitewater."
I'm not so sure. Kerry may have been three weeks late to respond, but he's always been a man who is slow to be roused and then implacable once he is. The disparaging Swifties have succeeded in fanning the full ire of the base -- the Democratic base, that is. Manhattan Dems bracing themselves at the beach for the big Bush week didn't just howl their anger at the sea gulls as the Vet Set spreads its sleaze. Donors were so motivated that they flocked from every corner of eastern Long Island on Saturday to stand in three inches of mud in a black cloudburst for a DNC fundraiser at financier Alan Patricof's East Hampton spread. Some, like the photographer Clifford Ross, who lives in the West Village, came back from the weekend fundraisers to start a "battleground block party," recruiting New York foot soldiers to go get out the vote in the swing states.
For believers in the Democratic cause there was something heartening about the veins standing out in John Podesta's lawyerly neck on the Stephanopoulos show, as O'Neill became mired in self-contradictions. On "Fox News Sunday," hosted by Chris Wallace, the self-admiring sneers of Bill Kristol were outflanked for once by the burning eyes and righteous passion of Kerry defender Juan Williams.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan clearly relished getting a rise out of Kerry when he used the words "Senator Kerry losing his cool," but for once it may be the Republicans who are destined to lose theirs.
Latent Democrats everywhere, swing voters who are still dormant and desultory Dems who weren't going to make it to the polls may have been hanging back because they have never met the mythic Kerry of the Mekong Delta. The only Kerry they know is the one on show in GQ this month ("A Beer With John Kerry"). This Kerry is unable to tell the interviewer whether he prefers the Beatles or the Rolling Stones for fear of alienating one of their fan bases, and gives a list of 11 when asked to name a sports hero. He's so all-pleasing you feel that if you asked him if he wears boxer shorts or briefs, he would reply, "Both."
Yet surely, please, surely, Dems pray, underneath GQ's composite guy still lives the lethally poised warrior his shipmates describe. At Kerry's Cooper Union address in Manhattan on Tuesday, you could feel the expectancy in the room that this might, just might, be the moment when Mekong Man would finally burst through the sepia photograph of his youth with Technicolor guns blazing to turn his Swift boat head-on against the guerrillas, and not just about Vietnam but also Iraq, damn it, Iraq. Okay, he didn't, this time, though he fired a few bursts. But Lt. j.g. Kerry was a patient fighter as well as a sometimes impetuous one. Often he would silence his boat's deafeningly noisy engines and lie in wait for hours along a dark, silent jungle riverbank, hoping to surprise the enemy. The election is still 10 weeks away. He has time.
(c) 2004, Tina Brown