Jewish World Review August 30, 2004 / 13 Elul 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Low point | Wasn't there a blessed time when there was a pause in the presidential campaign between the summer conventions and the fall free-for-all? Wasn't there an unspoken but universally accepted tradition that the campaign didn't really start till after Labor Day? Or did I just imagine it? Has my nostalgia been working overtime again?

Wasn't there also a time when an honorable discharge was an honorable discharge, no questions asked? And a Purple Heart was a Purple Heart? Ditto, a Bronze Star and Silver Star? Even 30 years later. And nobody asked if the wearer had bought 'em in a pawn shop.

But here we are in the midst of an ongoing war, and the big campaign issue-would you believe it?- is the candidates' conduct in another war 30 years ago. Of course you'd believe it. Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public (to paraphrase H.L. Mencken), and nobody should underestimate the American public's fascination with completely irrelevant campaign issues, either.

You have to wonder which is sadder-the bottom-of-the-barrel accusation against a presidential candidate, or the candidate's over-the-top reaction to it? John Kerry is claiming that his dishonorable opponent hasn't sufficiently denounced those TV commercials attacking the senator's war record. George W. Bush has only denounced them. Not good enough.

What's the president supposed to do-jump up and down and tear out his hair? Throw a Howard Dean fit? Senator Kerry says Mr. Bush ought to make the band of zealots behind these Swift Boat commercials take them off the air. Now. Maybe yesterday.

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Never mind that, under current convoluted laws, getting an independent political organization to pull its ads would be a violation of the campaign finance "reform" laws. A presidential candidate isn't supposed to coordinate his campaign in any way with these outfits. By law, George W. Bush can no more stop those commercials than he could start them. You might as well demand that John Kerry call off, which has been smearing George W. Bush for months. Maybe years.

The Kerry campaign has been playing a game of Six Degrees of Separation, claiming the Bush campaign is behind these scurrilous commercials because some of the people involved with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth also have been involved with the Bush campaign. Ergo, the president is guilty by association.

These independent operators are called 527 organizations because Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code lets them operate as nonprofit, tax-exempt outfits so long as they don't coordinate their efforts with an official presidential campaign. They've proliferated on the left and, now that the right has caught on, will doubtless cover that side of the political spectrum, too. None of which bodes well for the level of taste in American political campaigns.

But this explosion of freelance muck actually has its benefits. For one, it lets you see how each candidate reacts under pressure. George W. Bush simply rose above it and rode out the mudstorm over his National Guard service. John Kerry has struck out at his critics, his opponent, and in all directions. Now he wants the Federal Election Commission to protect him. If it weren't so early in the campaign, his reaction might be described as desperate. Why doesn't he just rise above it, instead of focusing even more attention on these commercials?

Can it be because the Kerry campaign's polls say these sleazy commercials are working? If so, why? Was it because The Candidate himself talked so much about his heroism, or had others talk about it at the Democrats' national convention, that people got a little sick of it? There's something about being told over and over what a hero somebody is that just makes you want to chuck a mudball at him.

It's all a bit much. See Bob Dole's gruff reaction to John Kerry's injured feelings. Maybe it wasn't very nice, but you could understand the old boy's exasperation with all this hero stuff. Any self-respecting hero would be embarrassed by it. But dignity is always the first sacrifice demanded of anyone who runs for president. (There ought to be a sign above hen entry to any American presidential campaign: Check Dignity Here.)

What's George W. Bush got to say about all this? He says all these 527 organizations should just go away. Granted, they're loud as a bad suit. But can good taste be imposed by law? And should it be? Where does a decent restraint in politics end and censorship begin? Answer: When it's the law that does the restraining.

One of the saddest rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court of late was its decision to uphold the McCain-Feingold "reforms" that barred ads from these independent groups during the last 30 days of a campaign. That way lies the death of the First Amendment. Let 'em talk, all of 'em, early and late in a campaign, and let the voters decide. Isn't that what democracy is supposed to be about?

Maybe the problem isn't that there are too many 527s out there, but that there aren't enough. Why let either George Soros or a bunch of rich Texans monopolize the political conversation? Let anybody who wants in on this quadrennial campaign and circus join the fray. It's a free country. Or should be.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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