Politics & Policy

Kerry’s Bad Company

The candidate's three friends--er, liabilities.

Imagine you were, say, the Democratic candidate for president. You had wanted to have a good week leading up to your party’s convention. So you probably did not want to see:

A) One of your top advisers be caught in a criminal investigation, accused of improperly taking highly classified documents relating to the September 11 Commission investigation.

B) Another of your advisers exposed by two high-level investigating committees as having made false statements concerning Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions and African uranium.

C) One of your closest friends and surrogates go ballistic in a conference call with reporters, saying that George W. Bush, in order to be “Mr. Macho Man” and avenge the failures of his “daddy,” had “flat-out lied” so he could start a war in Iraq.

Or, to put it another way, you, the Democratic candidate for president, are somewhat disappointed in Sandy Berger, Joseph Wilson, and Max Cleland.

First, Berger. You might have trouble accepting your just-departed adviser’s story that he “inadvertently” lifted those classified documents from the National Archives. Certainly the evidence doesn’t seem to support that. In the course of reviewing thousands of papers, Berger apparently zeroed in on one, the so-called “after-action report” from the Millennium Plot.

And he allegedly took several copies of the same document–not once, but on two occasions. That seems like a very focused removal, not an absent-minded mistake.

So what can you, the Democratic candidate, do? First, distance yourself from your dear friend and trusted adviser. Second, hope the whole mess will go away. And third–if that doesn’t happen–try to keep the Berger affair moving along the old Clinton scandal script, which featured fishy evidence, all-round denials of malign intent, lots of stonewalling, and an inconclusive conclusion.

And one more thing–look into those witnesses at the Archives. Sure, they’re professionals dealing with highly sensitive material. But maybe one of them has driven drunk, or missed a mortgage payment, or voted for a Republican. A well-directed leak to the New York Times might do a serious number on their credibility.

Your next worry is Joe Wilson. The former ambassador is noticeably less useful to you these days as a critic of George W. Bush. Wilson has made a second career out of calling the president a liar–he also called the vice president a “lying son of a bitch” at one of your campaign events last year.

But since the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Lord Butler inquiries revealed that a number of Wilson’s public statements about the Niger/uranium affair had no basis in fact, the self-proclaimed truth teller is spending less time attacking the administration and more time trying to repair his tattered credibility.

So what can you, the Democratic candidate, do? First, distance yourself from your dear friend and trusted adviser. Second, move on. You’ve gotten all the benefit from Wilson that you can. Thank you for your service, ambassador.

And then there’s Max Cleland, the man who will introduce you for your widely anticipated address to the convention on Thursday. In a conference call with reporters last week, Cleland said President Bush invaded Iraq “because he concluded that his daddy was a failed president and one of the ways he failed was that he did not take out Saddam Hussein.” So the president, Cleland continued, “would be Mr. Macho Man” by taking out Saddam himself.

Cleland also said Bush “flat-out lied” when he asked Congress to authorize war in Iraq. He then went through a number of issues–Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, nuclear program, ties to al Qaeda, etc., and concluded that all were “a pack of lies.”

So what do you, the Democratic candidate, do? You can’t distance yourself from this dear friend and trusted adviser. After all, he’s one of your “brothers.” But you can’t really defend what he says, either. So you’ll do what Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, who was also on the conference call, did: Avoid all questions about Cleland’s extreme rhetoric.

Reporters asked McAuliffe why, if the Kerry campaign agreed with what Cleland said, the party’s platform was so mildly worded. For example, the platform says, “People of good will disagree about whether American should have gone to war in Iraq.” It includes nothing about flat-out lies and Mr. Macho Man. McAuliffe ran from the question.

So now you, the Democratic candidate for president, are entering your convention after a week that would have exhausted Mark Fabiani, Lanny Davis, Joe Lockhart, George Stephanopoulos, and all the other legendary spinners of the Clinton years (some of whom are playing prominent roles in the latest messes).

Sure it’s been tough, but you better get used to it. If you keep hanging around with the likes of Berger, Wilson, and Cleland, you’ll have plenty more problems in the future.

A version of this piece appeared previously in The Hill.


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