Tuesday, November 19, 2002

The last refuge of scoundrels. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal editorial page claimed it simply wasn't true that Saxby Chambliss, the Republican victor in Georgia's US Senate race, had impugned the patriotism of Democratic incumbent Max Cleland, a decorated war hero who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. "We thought we'd set the record straight, before the tale becomes one more liberal political legend," the editorial stated. "Mr. Chambliss won by exposing Senator Cleland's voting record on the issues that mattered most to Georgians, such as taxes, missile defense and especially homeland security."

Today the Boston Globe's Joan Vennochi repeats the charge that the Journal attempted to refute, beginning her piece: "Senator Max Cleland of Georgia lost both legs and his right arm in a grenade explosion in Vietnam in 1968. That did not stop C. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican with no military service, from questioning his patriotism in 2002." Was Chambliss rough but fair, as the Journal argues? Or did Chambliss cross the line and stoop to questioning the patriotism of a man who's long been a national symbol of sacrifice?

They say the winners get to write the history books, and the Journal's conservative editorial page is clearly on the side of the winners in the midterm elections. The Journal has every reason to defend Chambliss, who'll enter the Senate under a cloud for viciously attacking Cleland. Chambliss himself got out of serving in Vietnam because of a bad knee. Poor thing!

Nailing this down is important, because the aftermath of the toxic Chambliss-Cleland contest will help set the tone for the next two years. Senate Democrats are said to be furious at Chambliss and, by extension, at George W. Bush, who lent him crucial support down the stretch. The evidence suggests that Chambliss played it cute. You won't find any statements from Chambliss or even from his campaign stating, "Max Cleland is an unpatriotic American." Nevertheless, Chambliss's statements and his strategy point to a slimy assault on Cleland's patriotism, with just enough of an out so that Chambliss could deny it whenever reporters came calling.

Chambliss started warming up months before the election. Consider, for example, a "Notebook" item from the New Republic of June 10, originally reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 1997, Cleland had voted against a motion to expand the Chemical Weapons Treaty that would have barred inspectors from any nation that had sponsored terrorism or had violated nonproliferation agreements. (TNR noted that the United States already had the power to ban such inspectors.) Congressman Chambliss, in an opening salvo to the Senate campaign, dredged up that five-year-old vote and charged that Cleland had "directly contradict[ed]" his oath "to protect and defend" the nation. TNR accurately called Chambliss's remarks an "attack on Cleland's patriotism," adding that it was "repulsive" given Cleland's service to his country. I don't think any reasonable person could disagree with that assessment.

But the main event was the homeland-security bill. Cleland supported a Democratic version, but refused to go along with Bush's, which would remove union protections. That earned him, as Vennochi notes, a Chambliss TV commercial featuring the faces of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Chambliss's tactics were sleazy and out of bounds. Essentially he sounded themes of antipatriotism while denying that was ever his intent. In the November 4 issue of AdWeek, columnist Barbara Lippert wrote:

In the most egregious example of Husseinicide, Republican Senate candidate Rep. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia ran an ad against Democratic incumbent Sen. Max Cleland that began with shots of the Mideastern rat pack [i.e., bin Laden and Saddam] and went on to claim that Cleland is "weak and misleading" on homeland security, questioning his "courage to lead."

Ugh. And here's the exact line from the ad, reported by the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman (a former Globe staffer) on October 27. The narrator intoned: "Since July, Max Cleland has voted against the president's vital homeland-security efforts 11 times. Max Cleland says he has the courage to lead, but the record proves that's just misleading." (Speaking of courage, Saxby, how's the knee?) Take away the photos of Saddam and bin Laden (which Chambliss did after he was ripped for it), and it's nasty but basically fair. With the photos, I don't think it's unreasonable to say that the ad actually did call Cleland's patriotism into question.

Cleland, understandably, cried foul, which led George Republican Party chairman Ralph Reed to tell Zuckman: "Max needs to understand that when somebody is telling the truth about his voting record, just because he gets upset about it doesn't mean they're questioning his patriotism." Added Chambliss: "He [Cleland] got $600,000 from the labor unions. I'm suggesting the union bosses are telling him he better vote against it."

There's also this intriguing tidbit, from the Economist of November 2: "Senator Cleland, a Vietnam veteran who goes down well with local military people, 'unpatriotically' voted against the creation of the Department of Homeland Security." Why is "unpatriotically" in quotation marks? Clearly the Economist believed that the Chambliss campaign had questioned Cleland's patriotism, and the quotation marks are either meant to express the magazine's skepticism or to ascribe a direct quote. But a direct quote from whom? The magazine doesn't say. (Bad, Economist! Bad!)

There's no smoking gun -- Chambliss was careful enough to make sure of that -- but there's plenty of smoke. Chambliss managed to impugn Cleland's patriotism without ever saying it directly. The ideologues at the Wall Street Journal can believe what they want, but Chambliss ran a miserable campaign against a man with far more courage than he. Max Cleland has been a national symbol since Jimmy Carter made him head of the Veterans Administration in the 1970s. Now a new generation of Democrats can go about the business of turning Saxby Chambliss into a national symbol of a very different kind.

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