Beware of online gossipmongers and of journalists who lunge too avidly at the red meat they toss into the cage.
The monger in this case would be Matt Drudge. On Wednesday — the day before John Kerry accepted the Democratic presidential nomination — Drudge reported in huge, breathless headlines that Kerry had re-enacted some filmed combat scenes from the Vietnam War.
Relying in part on a 1996 Boston Globe article, Drudge painted Kerry as a cynical, ambitious youth who deliberately glamorized his wartime experiences for future political uses. Some scenes, Drudge implied, had worked their way into a film biography shown Thursday at the Democratic National Convention.
It seemed like great fodder for Thursday’s column, so I bit. Not a good move. At least I can say in self-defense that I wasn’t the first to fall for the story about Kerry’s war-movie fakery. Another who did so is slightly more prominent: Bill Keller, now the executive editor of The New York Times.
Keller, using that same Boston Globe story, slammed Kerry in a column about two years ago. Kerry aides then told Keller the accusation, in Keller’s words, was "just plain wrong." And Kerry himself invited Keller to come look at his Vietnam movies.
"For the next 40 minutes," Keller wrote on Sept. 7, 2002, "Mr. Kerry and I fastforwarded through silent, washed-out-color footage of mangrove - choked rivers, sleepy villages and sailors skinny-dipping — disturbingly interrupted on occasion by a Vietcong corpse or one of Mr. Kerry’s crewmen torching a thatched hut during a searchand-destroy mission.
"The first thing to be said is that the senator’s movies are not self-aggrandizing. Mr. Kerry is hardly in the film, and never strikes so much as a heroic pose. These are the souvenirs of a 25-year-old guy sent to an exotic place on an otherworldly mission, who bought an 8-millimeter camera in the PX and shot a few hours of travelogue, most of it pretty boring if you didn’t live through it.
"According to the Swift Boat Sailors Association, a group of veterans who manned those ‘Apocalypse Now’ riverboats in Vietnam, lots of enlisted men did the same."
Kerry has acknowledged filming battle zones after combat was over but denied reenacting the actual fighting. Keller’s column offered no proof, but it has the tone of a tepid retraction.
At the end of the day, of course, this will be but a minor breeze in the campaign tempest. But it illustrates the strange place of war in politics.
Kerry went to war, then protested against it, now uses it as campaign wallpaper. Bush didn’t go to war but now in late middle age revels in the role of wartime president.
People say they hate war, but when it comes to politics, war always sells.