Political Pundits on How to Win the White House

The stories about Kerry's vacation habits, his houses, his ties to Europe, his complexion, his hair, and all the rest had been deliberately promoted in order to exploit what Republicans long recognized as the candidate's greatest vulnerability: that he lived a life beyond the experience or even imagination of most of the people he hoped to lead. The pi?ce de résistance of the Freak Show in the 2004 campaign was taking Kerry's greatest asset, his military record in Vietnam, and transforming it into a liability. In the winter of 2004, this thirty-?ve-year-old period in Kerry's life was resurrected, as Dean faded and Kerry improved his campaign trail performance. The ?nal lift came when former Navy colleagues -- the "Band of Brothers," as they became known -- showed up in Iowa to vouch for the candidate. A ?ailing campaign was revived. The political logic seemed unassailable to Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire: There is no way a candidate with Purple Hearts on his chest and shrapnel in his leg can be portrayed as weak. The old Republican strategy of painting Democrats as unreliable on national security could not possibly work against this Democrat. Within days of the New Hampshire triumph, however, there were signs that such a strategy might indeed be effective.

Once more, the Drudge Report served as a leading indicator of the potential potency of an anti-Kerry scheme. On February 11, Drudge's opposition-research friendships were again in evidence. Someone alerted him to a 1970 Harvard Crimson article, which he rendered into the headline "Radical Kerry Revealed. Old Harvard Interview Unearthed." The story was interesting and relevant, too, as a historical document illuminating the thinking of the candidate as a young man. "I'm an internationalist,'' Kerry said then. "I'd like to see our troops dispersed through the world only at the directive of the United Nations.'' He also said he wanted to "almost eliminate CIA activity." A few days later in the New York Times, Newt Gingrich announced that Republicans were not going to allow Kerry to go through the campaign portraying himself as a war hero. The reality, Gingrich said, was that he was a "Jane Fonda anti-war liberal."

In April, several Republican members of Congress marched to the House ?oor to deliver speeches about Kerry. The occasion was the thirty-third anniversary of his 1971 antiwar testimony to a Senate committee, when Kerry had alleged, among other things, that war crimes by U.S. servicemen were commonplace in the Vietnam theater. The congressmen, themselves Vietnam veterans, assailed Kerry for the "slander." One of them, Sam Johnson of Texas, showily entered Kerry's 1971 testimony into that day's Congressional Record.

In any era, the complexities and puzzles about Kerry's life in Vietnam and his subsequent return as a prominent antiwar leader would have been a subject of widespread attention in the Old Media. It was only in the context of the Freak Show, however, that this convoluted tale was forged into a powerful weapon by Kerry's opponents.

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