Half-truths and embellishments are one thing; they're common at political conventions, vital flourishes for a theatrical air. Lies are another thing, and last night's Republican convention was soaked in them.
In the case of Sen. Zell Miller's keynote address, "lies" might be too strong a word. Clearly not a bright man, Miller dutifully recited the talking points that his Republican National Committee handlers had typed up for him, though perhaps in a more hysterical tone than anyone might have anticipated. (His stumbled rantings in the interviews afterward, on CNN and MSNBC, brought to mind the flat-Earthers who used to be guests on The Joe Pyne Show.) Can a puppet tell lies? Perhaps not.
Still, it is worth setting the record straight. The main falsehood, we have gone over before (click here for the details), but it keeps getting repeated, so here we go again: It is the claim that John Kerry, during his 20 years in the Senate, voted to kill the M-1 tank, the Apache helicopter; the F-14, F-16, and F-18 jet fighters; and just about every other weapon system that has kept our nation free and strong.
Here, one more time, is the truth of the matter: Kerry did not vote to kill these weapons, in part because none of these weapons ever came up for a vote, either on the Senate floor or in any of Kerry's committees.
This myth took hold last February in a press release put out by the RNC. Those who bothered to look up the fine-print footnotes discovered that they referred to votes on two defense appropriations bills, one in 1990, the other in 1995. Kerry voted against both bills, as did 15 other senators, including five Republicans. The RNC took those bills, cherry-picked some of the weapons systems contained therein, and implied that Kerry voted against those weapons. By the same logic, they could have claimed that Kerry voted to disband the entire U.S. armed forces; but that would have raised suspicions and thus compelled more reporters to read the document more closely.
What makes this dishonesty not merely a lie, but a damned lie, is that back when Kerry cast these votes, Dick Cheney—who was the secretary of defense for George W. Bush's father—was truly slashing the military budget. Here was Secretary Cheney, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 31, 1992:
Overall, since I've been Secretary, we will have taken the five-year defense program down by well over $300 billion. That's the peace dividend. … And now we're adding to that another $50 billion … of so-called peace dividend.
Cheney then lit into the Democratic-controlled Congress for not cutting weapons systems enough:
Congress has let me cancel a few programs. But you've squabbled and sometimes bickered and horse-traded and ended up forcing me to spend money on weapons that don't fill a vital need in these times of tight budgets and new requirements. … You've directed me to buy more M1s, F14s, and F16s—all great systems … but we have enough of them.
I'm not accusing Cheney of being a girly man on defense. As he notes, the Cold War had just ended; deficits were spiraling; the nation could afford to cut back. But some pro-Kerry equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Zell Miller could make that charge with as much validity as they—and Cheney—make it against Kerry.
In other words, it's not just that Cheney and those around him are lying; it's not even just that they know they're lying; it's that they know—or at least Cheney knows—that the same lie could be said about him. That's what makes it a damned lie.
Before moving on to Cheney's speech, we should pause to note two truly weird passages in Zell's address. My favorite:
Today, at the same time young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of a Democrat's manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief.
A "manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief"? Most people call this a "presidential election." Someone should tell Zell they happen every four years; he can look it up in that same place where he did the research on Kerry's voting record ("I've got more documents," he said on CNN, waving two pieces of paper that he'd taken from his coat pocket, "than in the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library combined.")
The other oddball remark: "Nothing makes me madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators." Huge applause line, but is he kidding? The U.S. troops in Iraq are occupiers. Even Bush has said so. If he doesn't understand this, then he doesn't understand what our problems are.
Cheney followed Zell, and couldn't help but begin with … not a lie, but certainly a howler: "People tell me Sen. Edwards got picked for his good looks, his sex appeal, his charm, and his great hair. [Pause] I said, 'How do you think I got the job?' "
Funny, apparently self-deprecating line, but does anybody remember how he did get the job? Bush had asked Cheney to conduct the search for a vice presidential candidate, and he came up with himself. He got the job because he picked himself.
Later in the speech, Cheney made this comment: "Four years ago, some said the world had grown calm, and many assumed that the United States was invulnerable to danger. That thought might have been comforting; it was also false."
Who are these people who thought this? The implication is that it was the Democrats who preceded Bush and Cheney. But it was Bill Clinton's administration that stopped the millennium attack on LAX. It was Clinton's national security adviser who told Condoleezza Rice, during the transition period, that she'd be spending more time on al-Qaida that on any other issue. It was Rice who didn't call the first Cabinet meeting on al-Qaida until just days before Sept. 11. It was Bush's attorney general who told a Justice Department assistant that he didn't want to hear anything more about counterterrorism. It was Bush who spent 40 percent of his time out of town in his first eight months of office, while his CIA director and National Security Council terrorism specialists ran around with their "hair on fire," trying to get higher-ups to heed their warnings of an imminent attack.
"President Bush does not deal in empty threats and halfway measures," Cheney said. What is an empty threat if not the warnings Bush gave the North Koreans to stop building a nuclear arsenal? What is a halfway measure if not Bush's decision to topple the Taliban yet leave Afghanistan to the warlords and the poppy farmers; to bust up al-Qaida's training camps yet fail to capture Osama Bin Laden (whose name has virtually gone unmentioned at this convention); to topple the Iraqi regime yet plan nothing for the aftermath?
"Time and again Sen. Kerry has made the wrong call on national security," Cheney said. The first example he cited of these wrong calls: "Sen. Kerry began his political career by saying he would like to see our troops deployed 'only at the directive of the United Nations.' " Yes, Kerry did say this—in 1971, to the Harvard Crimson. He has long since recanted it. Is there evidence that George W. Bush said anything remarkable, whether wise or naive, in his 20s?
The second example of Kerry's wrong calls: "During the 1980s, Sen. Kerry opposed Ronald Reagan's major defense initiative that brought victory in the Cold War." We've been over this—unless Cheney is talking about the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka the "star wars" missile-defense plan. It may be true that SDI played some role in prompting the Soviet Union's conciliation, though it was at best a minor role—and wouldn't have been even that, had it not been for Mikhail Gorbachev. But two more points should be made. First, lots of lawmakers opposed SDI; almost no scientist thought it would work, especially as Reagan conceived it (a shield that would shoot down all nuclear missiles and therefore render nukes "impotent and obsolete"). Second, Kerry voted not to kill SDI, but to limit its funding.
"Even in the post-9/11 period," Cheney continued, "Sen. Kerry doesn't appear to understand how the world has changed. He talks about leading a 'more sensitive war on terror,' as though al-Qaida will be impressed with our softer side." A big laugh line, as it was when Cheney first uttered it on Aug. 12 before a group of veterans. But Cheney knows this is nonsense. Here's the full Kerry quote, from an address to journalists on Aug. 5: "I believe I can fight a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side."
In context, it's clear that "sensitive," a word that has several definitions, is not meant as a synonym for "soft." And Cheney, who is not a stupid man, knows this.
"He declared at the Democratic Convention," Cheney said of Kerry, "that he will forcefully defend America after we have been attacked. My fellow Americans, we have already been attacked." Where in Kerry's speech did he say this? Nowhere.
"Sen. Kerry denounces American action when other countries don't approve," Cheney continued, "as if the whole object of our foreign policy were to please a few persistent countries." No, that's not it. Kerry thinks that other countries should go along with our actions—that a president must work hard at diplomacy to get them to go along with us—because going it alone often leads to failure. Cheney should ask his old colleague Brent Scowcroft or his old boss W's father about this. Or he should simply go to Iraq and see what unilateralism has wrought.