Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Dear Mr. Bush,

You have won the election. I did not vote for you, which doesn't really matter; like anyone else who has been voting for thirty years, I have plenty of experience in voting for both the winners and losers of elections. The problem is that, since you're the President of the United States and will remain so for four more years, I would like to trust you, but I don't. There are many reasons why I don't trust you; here is just one example. There would, however, be one gesture that might change my opinion of you somewhat. That would be if now that you have won the election, Mr. Bush, you would make a public apology to John Kerry, Max Cleland, and John McCain for your part in the denigration of their military records.

The military (as opposed to the separate issue of war) is not normally one of my own political hot buttons; I tend to be more concerned about civil liberties, global and local economic justice, and environmental protection. I also understand that ugly things have always been written and said, both in hot and cold blood, during political campaigns, and that all competent politicians develop thick skins. Going a bit further, I hold no prejudices toward any man your age based solely on whether he served in the Vietnam War. People of good conscience fought in that war, people of good conscience resisted and protested it, and people of good conscience quietly found ways to stay out of the thick of it.

What I don't understand, Mr. Bush, is your success at mocking and insulting the military service of these three veterans. For example, John Kerry has never made any secret of the fact that his combat injuries were minor rather than life-threatening. In fact, on two of the three occasions when he was wounded by shrapnel on a swift boat, he went right back on duty. Think of that. Some of us take a day off from work when we have a bad headache. I know that If I'd been sprayed with sharp metal fragments by someone who was trying to kill me, I'd probably be no good for at least the rest of the week. Does someone have to be missing actual limbs before you credit him for surviving serious danger?

Oops, that brings us to Max Cleland, who really is missing some of his limbs. To be specific, he lost both of his legs and one arm in Vietnam when a grenade exploded unexpectedly. Technically, I suppose, this was an accident, although it happened on a mission for which he volunteered, and several days earlier, he had risked his life to rescue casualties at the battle of Khe Sanh. His permanent disabilities never stopped Max Cleland from entering a successful political and academic career in civilian life. But, when as a U.S. senator he opposed a few features of your Homeland Security plan, your party strategists ran smear ads against him until he lost his Senate seat. Morphing images of Cleland's face into those of Saddam Hussein? Oh, well, at least he can be thankful that your people didn't compare him to someone who actually committed terrorist attacks against the U.S. Besides, although Cleland is hardly a leftist, he is a Democrat, so maybe the partisan vitriol was just business as usual.

But, wait: How does partisanship explain what your strategists did to John McCain? Okay, he ran against you in the 2000 primaries. Maybe that made him fair game. But he's a conservative Republican. He also spent over five years as a POW in Hanoi. If that's not enough, he (like John Kerry) has also survived cancer. None of this has slowed him down one bit. He has even stood up for you, to the point where you eventually named him to a special intelligence commission. But it wasn't all that long ago that your spinners were not only making derogatory remarks about his military service, but also insulting his wife and aiming racial slurs at his adopted daughter. This man was locked up and tortured for years, and he shares many of the values that you also claim to stand for. What were you thinking?

You also claim to be proud of your own military service. We'll leave alone the question of where you were while you were supposed to be carrying out some of that service. But aren't veterans supposed to be a band of brothers and sisters? According to the U.S. Constitution, this is the last time you can be elected to the Presidency. What do you have to lose? Apologize to John Kerry, Max Cleland, and John McCain, and not only will you gain points with veterans, but with those of us lifelong civilians -- men and women, liberals and conservatives, doves and hawks, military enthusiasts and skeptics of military force, opponents and supporters of the Iraq war, Democrats and Republicans and Greens and whatever -- whose parents and uncles and aunts and cousins and college roommates and neighbors joined up because they felt it was their duty, or enlisted to get job training, or were drafted, or committed civil disobedience in principled opposition to war.

Trust us on at least this point, Mr. Bush, because you've gotten us immersed in yet another war with no clear objective, you've cut the benefits due to veterans, you've gotten a lot of mileage out of other people's sacrifices, and you have a long, long way to go before many of us will trust you.

The Kerry/Edwards banner will remain on this blog for a while. It's just one tiny tribute to a brave effort that galvanized nearly half of the voting public and offered the hope of something better -- something that will not disappear with the loss of a single election. And, I'm in love with the people of Flint, Michigan, and the activists of and ACORN. Their determination to organize and empower voters in their communities, regardless of political affiliation, was something that will stay with me forever. Their approach to voting is to make it as inclusive as possible, rather than to challenge voters and make the national discourse smaller. They inspire fearlessness rather than fear, and have given me a pride in my country that I never dreamed possible.


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