By Stan Crock Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise given how close the race is right now, but the Presidential campaign has degenerated from tawdry to downright appalling. I'm referring, of course, to the scurrilous, shameless campaign to impugn Senator John F. Kerry's Vietnam record. That effort has one silver lining, however. The press -- particularly The New York Times -- is playing a far more constructive and thoughtful role than it did the last time such an issue arose in an election year: the Whitewater nonstory back in 1992.
Back then, The Times and most of the rest of the press bought the line being pitched by a handful of right-wing activists, whose existence journalist Marvin Kalb documented in his book, One Scandalous Story. No, there wasn't a "vast" right-wing conspiracy, as Hillary Rodham Clinton alleged. But there was indeed a concerted effort on the part of this right-wing group to suggest that when Clinton was governor of Arkansas, he gave preferential treatment to a thrift owned by James MacDougal. Clinton and MacDougal were partners in a money-losing real-estate investment known as Whitewater.
LONG SHADOW. Had the press shown the healthy skepticism it should have, the Whitewater stories never would have appeared. It was demonstrably true at the time the story broke in 1992 that the allegations were false. When Clinton was governor, his administration was correct in not shutting down MacDougal's ailing thrift, Madison Guaranty.
Why? The Federal Savings & Loan Insurance Corp., which insured thrift deposits, was broke and was shutting down fewer than a dozen savings and loans a year during the mid-1980s, the period at issue. If a state had closed a thrift when the feds couldn't pay off depositors, it would have started a Depression-era-style bank run. It would have been irresponsible for Clinton to have closed Madison Guaranty.
I point this out because I covered this story back then with my BusinessWeek colleague Dean Foust. We did our homework and predicted -- before Prosecutor Kenneth Starr's predecessor, Robert Fiske, was appointed special counsel -- that an independent prosecutor would find no wrongdoing. Seven years and $40-plus million later, Starr reached that conclusion. Dean and I had been able to figure that out. It wasn't that difficult.
But the press failed miserably, the conspirators succeeded remarkably, and the cost was an eight-year-long shadow over the Clinton Presidency.
CHANGING TUNES. Today there's an element of déjà vu. The Republican conspirators are at it again. Some Swift Boat veterans are challenging Kerry's heroism and the medals he received. But this time the press is playing a different role. It's looking at all the facts, looking for independent verification of claims. The New York Times showed in a recent article that long before the current political campaign, a number of the Swift Boat veterans now attacking Kerry praised his valor. Their current accounts conflict with Pentagon documentation supporting Kerry's medals (for two opposing views of this episode, see "Flinging the Foul Mud of Vietnam" and "Why Kerry's War Record Matters").
The attacks also are at variance with the recollections of Kerry's shipmates and the captain of a companion boat who's now an editor at the Chicago Tribune. The Times account also noted that many of the critics' financial backers and the critics themselves have close ties to Bush aides and Texas Republicans. The press is putting all of the allegations in context -- something it failed to do with Whitewater.
One of the Swift Boat ads focuses on Kerry's anti-war activities when he returned from Vietnam. Indeed, for some of the Swift Boat veterans, what Kerry did after the war may be the basis for their objections to him. That's legitimate, but those opinions should have been the sole focus of the attacks.
WHAT'S RELEVANT? Bush supporters are shelling out substantial sums to broadcast the Swift Boat ads in areas with vital swing voters -- who don't necessarily read The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune. Kerry, belatedly, is running some counter-ads.
It won't be known until November whether the Fourth Estate can provide a offsetting force against such underhanded efforts. One indication may be whether media around the country follow The Times' lead, as they did in Whitewater. If this happens, maybe the outcome in November will be determined -- as it should be -- on Bush's record for the last four years and Kerry's proposals for the next four. They're a lot more relevant than what Kerry, Bush, and Cheney did four decades ago.
The good news is that the press seems to have learned its lesson. The bad news is it may not matter. Crock is chief diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek in Washington