Fans of British comedy have howled for decades over a famous episode of “Fawlty Towers,” starring the incomparable John Cleese, in which some German tourists visit his madcap hotel. The entire staff is under strict orders from Basil (Cleese’s character) not to mention the War to their Teutonic guests, under any circumstances. In typical fashion, Basil manages to refer to it in nearly every sentence of his conversation with them. To cheer the offended Germans up after his series of verbal gaffes, the 6’4” Cleese does a hysterical burlesque impression of a goose-stepping Adolph Hitler. Several insane vignettes involving a fire alarm, a kitchen fire, and a talking moose-head cause the Germans to shake their heads and ask, “However did they win?”
I thought of this wonderful production in the context of several recent incidents. One of these involved Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is running for the U. S. Senate as a Democrat from Connecticut. Mr. Blumenthal has often mentioned his service in Vietnam: e.g., “…we have learned something very important since the days that I served in Vietnam…” – and similar statements which unmistakably imply that he served overseas. (At least he never mentioned enduring shelling or night attacks.)
These statements have become an issue célèbre since the disclosure that Mr. Blumenthal was never actually in Vietnam, but received five deferments before enlisting in the Marine Corps Reserve near the end of hostilities. His tales of enduring hostile reactions when he returned were obviously fashioned out of whole cloth. Columnist R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. has suggested that the national media’s inattention is what encouraged Mr. Blumenthal to continue his war-service charade by giving him the idea that no one had noticed his lies. Thus, the disclosures surprised him and took him off guard.
Vietnam service has tripped up others in the recent past, of course – none more famously than John Kerry in his 2004 presidential campaign. Mr. Kerry blundered by making his Vietnam War service the lynchpin of his campaign. At the start of his nomination acceptance speech, Mr. Kerry saluted theatrically and said he was “reporting for duty.” We can only speculate whether he and his advisors believed this gesture would counter-balance Mr. Bush’s wartime commander-in-chief persona.
El Kapitan’s salute evoked wild convention cheering, but he must have forgotten his testimony to Congress in 1971, after he returned from his swiftboat service. Or did he think the American people had forgotten how he accused his comrades of raping, murdering and butchering civilians, and generally acting like barbarians? Whatever he thought or didn't think, Mr. Kerry’s ostentatious salute on national TV brought it all back. 100,000 veterans jumped up, shook their fists, and swore that this slanderous traitor would never be president. (Whatever you do, don’t mention The War!)
To balance the war-service ledger, some Kerry-sympathizers tried to claim that George Bush had dodged a medical exam for military service in 1975. But the charge was based on fraudulent documents which were quickly sniffed out by internet bloggers. The resulting fiasco cost TV journalist Dan Rather his job.
Democratics were outraged over the “unfair” charges brought against Mr. Kerry’s war-service by Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, but the fact is that he brought most of it on himself. Mr. Kerry could have dispatched the war-thing (as John Cleese might have called it) quite gracefully, had he not had the hubris to think the American people could be placated with military burlesque. In my estimation, he could easily have stood up and – instead of doing the salute-shtick – said something like this to the American people:
I want to make a heartfelt apology to all of my comrades from the war for things I said in 1971. I did know of some incidents of violence in Vietnam, but much of my testimony to Congress was exaggerated. We were all young and idealistic then, and we wanted the war to end. I got carried away with myself, and I deeply regret it. I knew it was wrong as soon as I said it. I hope that you can forgive me and that we can all put that difficult time behind us. We are all Americans. Let’s move forward and build a better country. May God bless every man and woman who served with honor in that conflict.
An earnest statement like that might have put the war – and Mr. Kerry’s part in it – to rest, and reassured the country of his patriotism and his good intentions. We all make mistakes. But that kind of humility was beyond John Kerry, just as it seems to be beyond Richard Blumenthal. The latter’s recent attempts at “damage control” have included vapid claims that he “misspoke” about his military service – namely, that he should have said he served “during” Vietnam, not “in” Vietnam. But it won’t wash. His tales of being spit upon when he came home are too detailed to be corrected by mere wordsmithing. Nothing short of a clean breast will do – and even that might fall short. Americans have repeatedly shown that they hate liars – especially in high office. Mr. Blumenthal’s campaign has been mortally wounded.
War has been an American political shillelagh since the Civil War. For the rest of the 19th century, following the War, northern politicians – many of them veterans – hammered the South and its politicians for trying to dissolve the union and causing such terrible loss of life. In any argument that pitted southern against northern interests, northern politicians predictably mentioned “The War.” The tactic came to be called “waving the bloody shirt.” William McKinley – the last president who had served in the War – died in 1901, but other vets held office well into the 20th century. The last Civil War veteran in Congress was Charles Manley Stedman (D-NC), who died in 1930 at age 89. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes – a four times wounded union veteran – served on the Supreme Court until 1932. (He died in 1935 at 94.)
The War was not only frequently mentioned, but in some respects seemed to continue long after the shooting stopped. “In the South,” said William Faulkner, “the past isn’t dead; the past isn’t even past.” And Justice Holmes wrote: “In our youth, our hearts were touched with fire.”
While some contemporary public figures disregard the caution against mentioning “the war” at their peril, others avoid mentioning it at all – or at least they avoid mentioning the enemy. This fetish has now reached absurd levels among White House officials. Attorney General Eric Holder performed verbal contortions, in his May 13th testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, to avoid naming Islamic terrorists as possible culprits in the Times Square bombing attempt. He kept saying terrorists have “various motivations” – as though some might be angry PTA or Elks Lodge members – but no evidence supports him. Mr. Holder also alluded to the “teachings of Islam” and praised that religion’s commitment to “peace.” (Who knew that Mr. Holder was a Koranic scholar of such stature?)
It’s worth noting that another Koranic scholar, George W. Bush, eventually abandoned his campaign of insisting that Islam was a “religion of peace.” The jihadists simply would not leave the pax-label in place, and he had to give up on that crack-brained idea. I have often wondered if he believed it, himself.
Don’t mention The War? Neither Mr. Holder nor Mr. Obama wants to name the enemy. (Could the “real” jihadis actually be Methodists, neo-Shakers or Southern Baptists?) At least the madcap outfit at Fawlty Towers knew the Germans had been the enemy, even if their war was long over. We live in strange times.