The other night, having grown weary of convention coverage, I decided to pop in my new DVD of the classic 1962 political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate. When I was finished watching the film—whose shattering climax, ironically, takes place during a Republican Party convention at Madison Square Garden—I was left thinking that it's no wonder it was the subject of a recent remake: It's all about the politics of paranoia and demonization.
I was also struck by the thought that each side in Election 2004 could adopt the movie's plot as its own script about its opponent. The Democratic narrative is the story of an empty-suit candidate who poses as a defender of America from a foreign threat but actually subverts the very freedom he claims to champion. The Republican narrative is a story of a decorated war hero whose heroism is a lie and who is actually an instrument of evil.
What an election year this is. We are fighting a war in Iraq that has deeply divided the country and that even its supporters concede has been badly mismanaged; we are also facing a war against terrorism that President Bush has acknowledged will never be won completely. (He was, of course, quite right, and it's a shame that partisan sniping forced him to retreat from this realistic and courageous statement—a refreshing contrast to the surreally sunny vision of his acceptance speech.) We are also, bizarrely, reliving another war that divided and scarred the country three decades ago.
The issue of John Kerry's service in Vietnam has dominated the mud-wrestling match known as "political debate" in the weeks before the Republican convention. Predictably, the two sides offer narratives so different as to make any agreement impossible.
In the eyes of the hardcore conservatives, Kerry is an opportunist who has lied about his record, falsely claimed the mantle of war hero, and smeared his fellow veterans. In the eyes of liberals, Kerry is the victim of a disgusting smear by people who have the gall to go after a war hero when their own candidate is a draft dodger.
The truth of the Vietnam allegations is virtually impossible to sort out in this shouting match. It seems fairly certain that, in the words of conservative commentator Max Boot, "the rhetoric about Kerry's supposed wrongdoing has outpaced any verifiable facts," and that the veterans' charges against Kerry are based less on what he did in Vietnam than on his anti-war stance and his claims of American war crimes once he came back. In that sense, the attacks are politically motivated, whether or not they are driven by partisan loyalty to Bush.
Of course, the opportunism charge against Kerry sticks for a reason. It was his choice to run on his war record of 30-plus years ago—a record of service in a war he later denounced as shameful—in order to counter Bush's image as a "war president." Given the bitter resentment so many veterans feel against him, Kerry had to know that raising the Vietnam issue would reopen old wounds.
Still, that doesn't change the fact that the Republicans have capitalized on largely unsupported, damaging accusations. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has said that the Swift Boat veterans are "the conservative movement's answer to Michael Moore."
Such is the brave new world of politics in 2004: The response to mudslinging is not to disprove the falsehoods, it's to sling mud right back.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are hardly blameless—not after four years of virulent Bush-bashing, not after Al Gore bellowing that Bush "betrayed this country" by going to war. What passion there is among Democrats today derives not from admiration for Kerry, or even from the belief that he can competently handle the many problems the next president will have to face, but from hatred and contempt of Bush.
In a Fox News interview just before the President's speech, Laura Bush pointedly declined to join in the attacks on Kerry's patriotism, saying that she believes both candidates have their country's best interests at heart. It was an encouraging moment—yet one jarringly, bitterly at odds with the rest of the campaign.
In George Orwell's 1984, the dictatorial regime held events called "Two Minutes Hate," in which the faithful gathered to hurl abuse at a large photo of a dissenter designated as the enemy of the people. Our democracy seems to be headed in that direction. And perhaps the most depressing thought is that, no matter who wins, that's not going to change. We have to brace ourselves for four more years of a political hate-in.