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Cynical Presidential Candidates

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There is a simple reason why so many people despise politics. They can see that it is little more than a despicable grab for power and that most candidates will say anything, avoid saying anything, and “reinterpret” their own previous words to be elected. The current presidential campaign already abounds with examples.

Take the controversy around Democratic candidate John Kerry’s time in Vietnam. (I will not call it “service,” unless that is to mean service to the corrupt Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. America was not served by anything that went on there.)

I do not know who is telling the truth, or the greater part of it. Both sides are tainted. Kerry wants to be president. His critics are Bush partisans and still sore about Kerry’s anti-war activities. It’s possible that both sides are not being entirely truthful. For example, Kerry’s claim that he spent time in Cambodia helping to conduct an illegal war has been contradicted — by Kerry himself. Some of the critical vets once praised him.

My point is not to argue for one side or the other. It’s to examine statements by Kerry and President Bush to show how cynical they both are.

When Kerry left the navy and protested the war, he told a congressional committee that U.S. forces, routinely and with the connivance of higher-ups, engaged in horrible acts against Vietnamese civilians. Kerry used the word “atrocities,” in which he implicated himself.

When asked about his testimony during the present campaign, he is less than forthcoming. On Meet the Press in April, Kerry said, “[The] words were honest, but on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top.”

That’s how virtually all politicians talk, and for that they deserve the contempt of every thinking American. Look at Kerry’s words, which seem calculated to fulfill the flip-flop stereotype the Republicans are working to establish. “The words were honest”: His statement begins with what looks like a clear point of fact. But he quickly retreats with “on the other hand.” That can mean: there’s another valid way of looking at things. What’s the other way? The words “were a little bit over the top.” What does that mean? The American Heritage Dictionary defines the phrase as “exceeding the normal bounds; immoderate; extravagant” — but just “a little bit” so.

Kerry wants it both ways: he spoke honestly and dishonestly 30 years ago. He can’t say he lied back then, but he can’t stand behind his words either. Each path is perilous to his quest for the presidency.

Bush, as we should know, is not above such wordplay. He has been pressed to repudiate television spots paid for by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who claim Kerry didn’t earn his war medals. Financing for the spots comes under section 527 of the IRS code, permitting “soft money” to be spent independently of official political campaigns.

Bush has apparently calculated that he would look bad casting aspersions on Kerry’s war record. (Guess why.) So he can’t openly countenance the Swift Boat Vets, whom John McCain has denounced as liars. In fact, Bush says Kerry “served admirably.” But he also can’t be upset with the disruption the criticism is causing to Kerry’s campaign. So he won’t clearly denounce the vets’ anti-Kerry crusade as dishonest.

He tries to have it both ways. Asked if the vets’ ads should be pulled, he replies that all “527” ads should be stopped: “This kind of unregulated soft money is wrong for the process…. I thought we were gonna once and for all get rid of a system where people could pour tons of money in and not be held to account for the advertising.”

That’s not what he was asked. He was asked about a particular ad that many people feel is shamefully dishonest. Instead of answering, he attacked freedom of speech by private organizations and endorsed censorship. What else would you call abolishing “unregulated soft money” and the advertising it supports?

Bush would rather offend civil libertarians than Kerry’s enemies. Thus is freedom sacrificed for political expediency.

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Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.