The technique President Bush is using against John F. Kerry was perfected by his father against Michael Dukakis in 1988, though its roots go back at least to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It is: Bring a charge, however bogus. Make the charge simple: Dukakis "vetoed the Pledge of Allegiance"; Bill Clinton "raised taxes 128 times"; "there are [pick a number] Communists in the State Department." But make sure the supporting details are complicated and blurry enough to prevent easy refutation.
Then sit back and let the media do your work for you. Journalists have to report the charges, usually feel obliged to report the rebuttal, and often even attempt an analysis or assessment. But the canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false. As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there is some controversy over Dukakis' patriotism or Kerry's service in Vietnam. And they have been distracted from thinking about real issues (like the war going on now) by these laboratory concoctions.
It must be infuriating to the victims of this process to be given conflicting advice about how to deal with it from the same campaign press corps that keeps it going. The press has been telling Kerry: (a) Don't let charges sit around unanswered; and (b) stick to your issues: Don't let the other guy choose the turf.
At the moment, Kerry is being punished by the media for taking advice (b) and failing to take advice (a). There was plenty of talk on TV about what Kerry's failure to strike back said about whether he had the backbone for the job of president -- and even when he did strike back, he was accused of not doing it soon enough. But what does Bush's acquiescence in the use of this issue say about whether he has the simple decency for the job of president?
Whether the Bush campaign is tied to the Swift boat campaign in the technical, legal sense that triggers the wrath of the campaign-spending reform law is not a very interesting question. The ridiculously named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is being funded by conservative groups that interlock with Bush's world in various ways, just as MoveOn.org, which is running nasty ads about Bush's avoidance of service in Vietnam, is part of Kerry's general milieu.
More important, either man could shut down the groups working on his behalf if he wanted to. Kerry has denounced the MoveOn ads, with what degree of sincerity we can't know. Bush on Monday -- finally -- called for all ads by independent groups on both sides to be halted. He also said Kerry had "served admirably" in Vietnam. But he declined an invitation to condemn the Swift boat effort.
In both cases, the candidates are the reason the groups are in business. There is an important difference, though, between the side campaign being run for Kerry and the one for Bush. The pro-Kerry campaign is nasty and personal. The pro-Bush campaign is nasty, personal and false.
No informed person can seriously believe that Kerry fabricated evidence to win his military medals in Vietnam. His main accuser has been exposed as having said the opposite at the time, 35 years ago. Kerry is backed by almost all those who witnessed the events in question, as well as by documentation. His accusers have no evidence except their own dubious word.
Not limited by the conventions of our colleagues in the newsroom, we can say it outright: These charges against John Kerry are false. Or at least, there is no good evidence that they are true. George Bush, if he were a man of principle, would say the same thing.