Anatomy of a Smear

In this little essay (post, diatribe, whatever), I am going to write about the smear — the dirty black op of politics.

The important thing to realize about a smear is that it is not a search for the truth. Rather, it is an attempt to create innuendo in order to muddy the truth. The goal isn’t to convince, but to cause you to doubt. Michael Dukakis, for example, never heard of Willie Horton, and had nothing to do with Horton’s ill-advised (in hindsight) release from prison. Yet by the end of that smear campaign, it was almost as if Dukakis personally opened the doors for Horton. That was a very successful smear campaign.

The attacks on Kerry’s medals is another example of a smear. Kerry’s Vietnam record is troublesome to any hawk (or chickenhawk) Bush supporter, especially when Kerry’s Vietnam record is placed in a side-to-side comparison with George Bush’s lack of a Vietnam record. It doesn’t help when Bush says, "I think him going to Vietnam was more heroic than my flying fighter jets . . . He was in harm’s way and I wasn’t."

So what do you do if you are a Bush supporter in that awkward position? Well, you cast doubt on the validity of Kerry’s service. The theory is that if any part of Kerry’s military service — no matter how small — is questionable, then ALL of it (small or not) is questionable.

Now, keep some things in mind. It doesn’t matter if you can’t prove anything — creating doubt-through-innuendo-and-inference is good enough. You want to cripple voter trust in a candidate.

And it doesn’t matter if your smear tactics fail to convince most voters — in a tight race, a successful smear which convinces, say, 3% of the voters, is good enough.

Let’s take a closer look at these tactics, using this post here as our illustrative example.

1. Conspiratorial Tone and Use of Innuendo, Even Where There Is Nothing Controversial

The key to a smear is to give the fake appearance of neutrality and objectivity. If you froth at the mouth and sound like an asshole, nobody’s going to listen to you, much less the smear you are trying to put forth. If you create the tone of objectivity, then you can smear under the radar.

This can be accomplished with a faux folksy "Hey-I’m-just-asking-questions-here" demeanor. Take the title of a post: "Who Signed Kerry’s Silver Star Citation? (and other Irregularities)" Mmmmm. It sure SOUNDS like he’s just asking questions about "irregularities".

But if you continue reading, you see that the very issue of the title — the signing of the citation — DOESN’T INVOLVE AN "IRREGULARITY"! The "mystery" is fabricated. Check it out:

The smearer notes that the signatory of Kerry’s citation, Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, doesn’t remember signing the citation. A discerning reader would ask, at this point, "Well, why WOULD he remember signing this particular document a couple of decades ago? Didn’t he sign LOTS of things?" But never mind that.

The smearer then tosses up a likely answer to this (non)puzzling (non)issue, i.e., Kerry’s citation might have been signed by an autopen, something routinely used in government to sign documents.

Well . . . . mystery solved, right?

Nope. According to the smearer, the new piece of information means that "[t]he plot is indeed thickening."

You are probably asking youself "What is going on here"? And I repeat: it’s all about creating innuendo. Whether Lehman signed the citation or whether an autopen signed it isn’t really important to the smearer or the election. What’s important (to the smearer) is that it can be spun to support what the smear says in the opening graf: "Apparently, there is something very fishy about Kerry’s Silver Star citation, including a very credible claim that the signature was unauthorized." That opening sentence sets the "fishy" tone, the rest of the post is just spin.

2. "But Don’t Take MY Word For It!"

Aside from tone, you need to pay attention to the questionable use of "authorities". We’ve all seen this tactic recently employed (more effectively) with the 200+ Swift Boat Vets who [*cough*] "served with" Kerry. That "served with" made it sound as if all of them were in a position to speak with firsthand knowledge about specifics regarding Kerry’s service/medals. Of course, most of them weren’t in that position (and those few who were contained some clear liars).

The smearer does this same "appeal to biased authority". Check it out:

First, he notes that one of Kerry’s records mentions a “Silver Star with combat V”. The Silver Star is a particular military honor which — according to the smearer — doesn’t exist with a combat V. (Here the innuendo — I’m guessing — is that Kerry is somehow responsible for the ersatz "combat V" reference on his citation, although it is confusing as to why [and how] Kerry would do such a thing. It’s not like people are going to say "Oh, he won a Silver Star with a combat v?? I always thought it was just a regular Silver Star. Well, THAT changes my vote! ." The smearer doesn’t elaborate, but as I wrote above, he doesn’t need to. As long as he convinces people of the POSSIBILITY of fraud, his work is done).

After hyping the "mystery" of the "combat v", he then lays his reader at the feet of "one man" who "makes the argument that this particular error is strongly associated with fraudulent claims of honors".

Who was that one man?

A guy who wrote a book about fraudulent claims of honor.

Now, the smearer goes to lengths to demonstrate that this guy is not politically biased in favor of Bush (although even that is questionable), because — according to smearer — his book isn’t politically biased (so says that well-known bias watchdog, the guy who writes the blurbs for Barnes & Nobles). This, of course, is diversion. Human nature will tell you that if you give a set of facts to an advocate of X, the advocate will likely interpret those facts through his familiarity with X. It’s why most military analysts tend to be, you know, pro-military. It’s why most cable news legal analysts who happen to be prosecutors tend to be pro-prosecutor. And so on.

The smearer’s appeal to biased authority also comes up later when he analyzes the impact of this "story" — i.e., it has "taken on a new life and taken a very deadly turn for Kerry". Why? Because Little Green Footballs and Captain’s Quarters are all over the "story". Yeah. It has taken on a new life because the right-wing blogs are writing about it. Just like Kerry’s mistress.

But again, the point of that is to convince the neutral reader (on the questionable assumption that the smearer has neutral readers) that Kerry has not only possibily engaged in war record fabrication, but that everybody is onto it now and the boom is about to drop . . . and why would you want to back a non-winner like that?

3. What Smears Avoid

Note that the smearer does not (because he cannot) deny the documented actual events that led up to the Silver Star citation (i.e., he turned the swift boat into shore and pursued the VC with the rocket launcher, etc.). Note also that he does not (because he cannot) deny that Kerry deserves the Silver Star citation. If he believes that Kerry did not do these things, or deserve a Silver Star (with or without a "combat v"), he should say so.

This is sort of the meta-function of the political smear. It detracts from the issues, something you do when the issues don’t cut your way. Health care, education, the economy, the war on terror, the war in Iraq? Nah, let’s see if we can smear Kerry’s character and heroism based on something which was, at worst, CLERICAL errors. (Fortunately, sometimes smears backfire, and insinuating that Kerry wasn’t entitled to his Silver Star will truly hurt Bush, given that most people suspect the smears are acquiesced by, if not driven by, the White House. In fact, polls are already showing a backlash.)

What do you think?