"KERRY = HITLER"?
A CANARD IS BORN
Two years ago Georgia Democrat Max Cleland lost a close Senate race to Republican Saxby Chambliss. Sensing Cleland's vulnerability, Democrats cried foul over a Chambliss TV ad that featured Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein: By linking Cleland to these tyrants the Republicans were questioning his patriotism, they said. Georgia Republicans replied: Nonsense, Cleland bowed to union interests and voted against a perfectly reasonable Homeland Security bill needed to protect Americans from the likes of those madmen.
After Cleland lost, he became something of a martyr to national Democrats. Having lost three limbs in Vietnam he was already better suited to play the role of a wronged patriot than possibly any other Democrat in the country. Cleland is all but John Kerry's mascot, as Michael Crowley wrote in Slate this spring
, not because of his skill or heroism but because he was the victim of a devastating war and, let's not forget, shameless Republican attacks.
Or so the line goes. Whether Cleland's patriotism was questioned at all is subject to interpretation. For the record, Crowley doesn't think so: The ad "questioned his political courage and judgment." While the facts about the ad are indisputable, the use of Osama and Saddam were controversial enough that Democrats could make the larger claim about the ad's intent, however erroneous. And they could claim so without proof because how does one prove such things? Just because they thought so, that made it "true for them," as the old relativist formulation goes.
The myth was established, and it remains very much in use to this day. Now, watch carefully in coming months, because the same thing is happening again:
If Fahrenheit 9/11 wasn't enough of a party-identification test, now there's another controversial movie out there that may be much shorter and less expensive to take in, but seems to be just as divisive. It's a new web video, released last Friday by the Bush campaign, which calls attention to something they call John Kerry's "coalition of the wild-eyed." It features the likes of Michael Moore and Al Gore, both red-faced and full of sound and fury, both bashing President Bush. It also includes a few shots from two controversial DIY anti-Bush ads that were posted to the MoveOn.org web site in January. They juxtapose George Bush with Adolf Hitler and draw captioned analogies between their war policies.
(You should really see it for yourself. Click here
, go to "Latest Videos" and click on "Watch" -- it should have the words: "This is not a time for pessimism and rage" superimposed over a picture of Kerry.)
If you think it's fair of the Bush campaign to bring up how Democrats have attacked them with Nazi imagery, then you'll think the ad is fair. If you don't think they should be throwing even this image back at their opponents, then you won't. I can respect both opinions, but one argument I can't respect is one claiming the Bush campaign is now trying to equate John Kerry's Democrats with Adolf Hitler's Nazis.
Believe it or not, Jacob Weisberg and William Saletan said exactly that yesterday at Slate
. Saletan went first:
The Bush campaign, outraged by the mixture of Nazi images with images of an American politician, has decided that the best response to this offense is to repeat it. The Bush video ... [features] a parade of angry speakers: Al Gore, Hitler, Howard Dean, Michael Moore, Dick Gephardt, Hitler, Gore, and Kerry. Is Bush suggesting that Hitler fits in with this group? Don't be silly, Jake.
As Saletan sees it, here are the Republicans calling the Democrats Nazis-by-association. But in order to do so, he accuses the Bush administration of -- get this -- running the ad as it is:
How does the Bush camp identify the Hitler footage? "Sponsored by Moveon.Org" says a label on the first Hitler clip, evidently put there by the miscreants who submitted the ad.
Yes, it was
. For clarity, so is the second:
"Images from Moveon.Org ad" says the Bush campaign's label on the second Hitler clip. The only organization that doesn't identify the clips as a "Moveon.org ad" is MoveOn.org, which denounced the ad and never "sponsored" it.
Saletan would be well-advised to remember, as this old Drudge item
makes clear, the furor preceded MoveOn.org's removal of the ad from its site. Had it not been brought to their attention, who knows how long it would have lasted. And are they not responsible for what's put on their website?
Also courtesy Matt Drudge, there's this report
from a January 12 MoveOn.org fundraiser where the comedian Margaret Cho said all kinds of cheerful things, including this comment on the then-fresh Hitler ad controversy: "I mean, George Bush is not Hitler. He would be if he fucking applied himself." Har har har.
Back to the aricle, Weisberg totally agreed with his colleague:
On the pretext of protesting a comparison of George W. Bush and Adolf Hitler, the president's re-election campaign has made an ad that implicitly compares John Kerry to Hitler. To be sure, it's disgusting, for all the reasons you say. ... What exactly does the Bush-Cheney campaign think that these Democrats have in common with Hitler? Basically, it's that they're too darned excited about politics. They yell. They criticize harshly. They use bad language. The message here, to the extent there is one, is: "Don't be like Hitler -- chill out!"
Whatever. This is willful ignorance on the part of two otherwise intelligent, if obviously not always fair, observers. Neither Saletan nor Weisberg could have failed to notice that the ad's footage comprises images of or by Democrats that are over-the-top attacks on the Bush administration. In fact, that's exactly what the disclaimer says at the outset. On this point, silence from both writers.
Weisberg also makes a weird claim that the ad includes
John Kerry using the phrase "kick your ass" (which is bleeped out, possibly in an effort to imply he said something worse).
You've seen the ad now, right? Is it conceivable he's saying anything but "ass"? The word is bleeped out because the Bush campaign is aiming to keep its website as family-friendly as possible. Weisberg knows this. He might well have just mocked the Bush campaign as prudes -- but instead he chose to suggest something both more damning and less believable.
Right here and now we're watching a myth form, one very much like that oft-recalled canard about Republicans questioning Max Cleland's patriotism. Neither actually happened but the emotions surrounding the imagery in each -- Hitler on one hand, Osama on the other -- are confusing enough that the charge will stick, unless it's called out right now. That's what I'm doing.
Now that these two influential liberal journalists are claiming that Republicans have called Democrats Nazis, others are sure to start repeating that charge in the coming months. The next time a left-wing group compares Bush or the GOP to the Third Reich -- and by the time you read this surely will have happened a dozen times on the Democratic Underground
boards -- they will point to this ad in much the same way.
By carefully misinterpreting the advertisement's meaning, Weisberg and Saletan are creating a whole new rallying cry for the Democratic Party. Just watch.
As an academic exercise, I ran searches at both Google and Nexis to see what Weisberg and Saletan said about the MoveOn Hitler ads at the time. It turns out they said the exact same thing: nothing. Also, the pair were mildly critical
of a recent round of Kerry ads, but of course in a way making it clear they wished Kerry was doing better. When it comes to Bush, they're hoping he does worse.
Thankfully, not everyone thinks this way. I'm clearly one. Glenn Reynolds first picked up on this late Friday night, and he cites plenty of other thoughtful bloggers who came to different conclusions
By the way, isn't the Weisberg-Saletan "Damned Spot"
feature rather dull? Saletan and Weisberg rarely disagree on much. It's sort of like a left-wing version of "The Beltway Boys," except even more ideologically homogenous. At least the conservative Barnes and moderate Kondracke can find more to argue about.
What I really should do is read Slate less often. But then, from my required daily stop at Kausfiles
it's just a short click over to the main page. And other recurring features -- "Moneybox"
, not to mention Hitchens' "Fighting Words"
-- are rarely so infuriating. But once I'm there, curiosity gets the better of me.