Like many Democrats, Kerry and his team believed that presidential campaigns are fundamentally about which candidate has the best thirty-two-point policy plan and who snags the most endorsements from top-tier newspapers. The reality is that campaigns are also character tests. And, unlike gossip about a possible affair, the Swift Boat controversy went to the heart of Kerry's leadership character. As August dragged on, a debate grew in Kerry's campaign about whether to get off the sidelines and defend aggressively against the Swift Boat Veterans. The debate was resolved with a bold decision: Let's wait for polling to settle the matter. By the time the numbers came back, it con?rmed for Democrats what Republicans already knew. The Swift Boat blitz was raising serious doubts among some swing voters about Kerry's veracity and values. Kerry's team ?nally responded, with a demand that Bush apologize for the Swift Boat attacks. That wan parry, which Bush swatted away, was so late and so lame that it hardly projected an image of strength, or solved the problem.
The entire episode, like Kerry's earlier encounters with the Freak Show, revealed the combination of indignation (How dare they attack me!) and insecurity (This is a crisis -- let's take a poll!) that was at the heart of Kerry's campaign. In his defense, it must be said that this combination is characteristic of many Democrats. So, too, was the reaction of his party: pervasive grumbling to Old Media reporters about its candidate's incompetence in standing up to New Media abuse.
Kerry was hardly blameless. Most of the attacks against him were predictable, however unfair. Indeed, they were predicted. The failure of Kerry and his team to anticipate and prepare for such assaults was a lapse that fully justi?ed the grousing of Democrats in Little Rock about their defeated nominee.
Bush certainly had his own Freak Show moments. The September 2004 controversy over whether he had evaded his commitments to the Texas Air National Guard was an example. That story, however, promoted by the Old Media warhorse CBS News, promptly was demolished by New Media critics. And though Bush survived it, the episode illustrated that he, too, had a life of competing narratives. According to some, he was a man born to privilege but with a common touch, whose life had been infused with new purpose once he embraced religious faith. This faith was the core of a presidency that had led the nation through the worst attacks on native soil in American history and was keeping the country safe in a dangerous new era.
There was another narrative, too. Bush was a daddy's boy and a lifelong mediocrity who was comically unprepared for the presidency and was elevated to the of?ce by a Republican-weighted Supreme Court. With hawkish surrogates making the decisions, Bush had blundered into a disastrous war and had led the nation to the brink of catastrophe. As in 2000, the country in 2004 divided almost perfectly down the middle over which version of George W. Bush they found more plausible.