The sparring match between the two major presidential campaigns over the candidates respective records in the Vietnam War has been a study in frustration for the Democrats. It has also been a demonstration of how changes in the media are changing our politics.
The Democrats are stunned to see John Kerry, a war hero, pilloried as a peacenik. They did not anticipate the attacks mounted by a coterie of anti-Kerry veterans from Vietnam. When the attacks came, they mainly came via cable TV and the Internet. The Kerry people thought the attacks would wither under scrutiny from the broadcast networks and the major national newspapers. They were wrong.
There was a time when the networks and the national papers formed a matrix of journalistic judgment that wielded this kind of influence. But that was when the broadcast nets held a near-monopoly on what TV news viewers saw each evening, and when their newsrooms derived much of their own attitude from a few elite news organizations in print.
The networks still have millions of viewers, and TV news people still read. But the old paradigm has lost its dominance. The news is not for the dinner hour and the breakfast table anymore. Many serious news junkies have moved on to the 24-7 mainline of cable TV and the Internet. Many who prefer their news with a hard partisan edge have turned to talk radio. Substantial numbers of prospective voters — especially the young — get more political impressions from entertainment shows (Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show) than from either news programs or paid advertising.
The shift was perceptible last week when CBS News aired an attack on President Bush's war record. The report said Bush had been accepted in the Texas Air National Guard in preference over others, thanks to his father's business and government connections. It also said the junior Bush often missed a lot of duty, ducked an order to get a flight physical and benefited from outside pressure that sweetened his evaluations.
When critics said CBS's documents were forgeries, disseminating their doubts via Web logs and talk shows, the network waited nearly 48 hours to respond (an eon in cyberspace). Rather stood by his story with scant explanation and sniffed at the lower orders of media that had dared to question his network's reporting. You could find more of a defense of CBS on various anti-Bush Web sites than on the network itself.
CBS may be right to stand by its story. But it was hard to miss the parallel between the network's attitude and that of the Kerry campaign responding to the anti-Kerry veterans. Neither seemed prepared for the power and modus operandi of the new media, which can circulate and amplify a story in a matter of hours and force it into the consciousness of the nation at large.
But those who expected the Bush Guard story to reorder the presidential standings were not just misjudging the media bounce. They were also wrong about the impact of the issue itself.
President Bush is not likely to suffer significantly from revelations about his irresponsible early 20s for several reasons. First, it is all old news. It was reported in the 1990s and again in the 2000 campaign. The Bush camp has subsumed the Guard episode in its larger narrative of Bush as the prodigal son redeemed. Once lost, he now is found. Reformed, he became a national icon of strength and rectitude after the attacks of Sept. 11. There is no news value in reminding the nation that the prodigal son was a prodigal.
All right then, surprise to one side, what about the hypocrisy? As a young man, President Bush supported the war but made no real effort to get in the fight. Isn't that outrageous? Perhaps, but it is an outrage millions participated in at that time. Officeholders with strong hawkish views but no service record are legion. They include most of the Republican leaders in Congress, Vice President Dick Cheney and many of the civilian advisers to the Pentagon who urged the invasion of Iraq.
But so what? Democrats have raised this issue again and again since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 (Newt Gingrich had no military service, and neither did his top lieutenants), trying to embarrass the so-called chicken-hawk caucus. Where has it gotten them?
One reason the chicken-hawk attack does not work is that it only stirs those who already disliked the politicians in question. Pro-military voters are generally fixed on policy more than on individual personal records of service. Of course they would rather have a hawk who was also a hero. But if they cannot have the package, they will take the candidate who seems most committed to robust defense spending and a tough foreign policy line. Consider Ronald Reagan, maker of training films for the Army, versus Jimmy Carter, a former career Navy officer. For these voters, it was no contest.
And so it will be this November.
In the end, it seems that pointing out ironies of any kind rarely does you any good in politics. Voters simply factor hypocrisy into politics as though the two terms were synonymous.
NPR's Ron Elving is senior Washington editor for NPR News.