Maybe this story isn't over. I've been thoroughly persuaded by John Derbyshire and Christopher Hitchens that John Kerry's words were indeed a botched joke. The clincher for me was the actual prepared text, which I confess I hadn't seen till I watched the Daily Show (where I tend to get the news these days) last night. The actual text was that if you didn't work hard, "you end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush."
Now, I may be typical of many people's real-time response to this piece of "news." When I first heard the remarks, I cringed and was appalled. When I saw the context, I could see what Kerry might have meant, but also saw the need for him to apologize for the way his spoken remarks could have plausibly been misinterpreted. I stand by that. But now I also see the prepared remarks in black and white, I have a third wave of sentiment. I agree with Jay Nordlinger here:
When you see Kerry's prepared text — I guess you would have to accept it as authentic — you can see precisely what Kerry meant: Bush is stupid, he has always been a slacker, that left him unprepared to lead in Iraq, blah, blah, blah.
So the debate over what Kerry actually meant is now over.
Now what do I next remember? I remember that the president vehemently went after Kerry, as did McCain. Now, when a president decides to do such a thing, his staff have examined the upsides and downsides every which way. They are paid to know any possible backfire for the remarks. And Rove is very smart. So this much I now know: knowing full well that he was deeply distorting Kerry's meaning, the president used the quote full-bore to impugn Kerry's commitment to the troops - and to help turn the base against the Democrats.
I know it's politics. I'm not naive. But it's also revealing about someone's character that he could authorize and exploit such a thing. Most fair-minded people will have to concede that, in retrospect, this was a very, very, very low blow. It hadn't sunk in for me till last night how low. In retrospect, this incident says much more about Bush than about Kerry. I'll bet I'm not the only one mulling that over this morning.
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