We’ve seen this one before: a politician who avoided military service as a privileged young man is running against a decorated veteran. The politician can’t match his opponent’s war record, so he tries to demolish it instead.
In 2004, when George W. Bush insinuated that John Kerry didn’t really deserve all those Purple Hearts, the tactic was given a name: Swift Boating. In 2010, Alexi Giannoulias chose to observe Memorial Day weekend by Swift Boating Mark Kirk. The Giannoulias campaign planted a story in the Washington Postrevealing that the “Intelligence Officer of the Year” award Kirk had claimed for himself was actually an Intelligence Unit of the Year award.
Giannoulias was right. But Swift Boating isn’t just lying about your opponent’s military record. It’s about trying to turn the strongest line on your opponent’s resume into a weakness. Swift Boating works best when you don’t have a military record, because your opponent can’t respond in kind. He has to spend the entire news cycle defending his record. Over the weekend, the best Kirk could do was attack Giannoulias’s basketball career.
“In this campaign, I have a military record, and now Alexi Giannoulias’s political goons have now gone through every detail of my military record,” Kirk said. “He has no military record. He’s never served a day in uniform in his life. As far as I can tell, when I wore the uniform of the United States Navy, serving in Allied Force, he was wearing a uniform, too, of a basketball team in Greece.”
Giannoulias’s campaign spokeswoman, Kathleen Strand, accused Kirk of “lying or embellishing his military record” and called him “the worst kind of Washington politician.”
At worst, Kirk was guilty of prideful exaggeration. If he’d claimed to be George Washington’s aide-de-camp, or the lieutenant who mapped out Sherman's March, then Giannoulias would be justified in calling Kirk a liar, as well as questioning his sanity.
Kirk’s big mistake may have been thinking his record was worth bragging about. For politicians of the World War II generation, military service was essential. Since Vietnam, voters have been ambivalent about soldiers, sailors and airmen. In the last five presidential elections, a candidate who stayed out of the armed forces defeated a candidate who fought in a foreign war. George Bush, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry and John McCain couldn’t transform their service into votes.
Maybe Alexi Giannoulias was smart to do his overseas tour with Panionios B.C. rather than the U.S. Navy. If you don’t have a military record, there’s nothing for your opponent to attack. Except your dad's bank.