Is anybody tracking?

A few months ago, sometime before John Kerry had become the official presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, the candidate made an appearance on MTV, where he was asked about his taste in music. Kerry's reply was that he found rap music "interesting" and thought it was "important" for us to pay attention to the concerns it was addressing.

The following day, a national talk-radio host of the Republican persuasion spoke of Kerry's MTV appearance and chalked up one more strike against Kerry as a man unsuitable to be president: "He loves rap music - says it's his favorite type of music."

Within the next few minutes, several listeners called in to point out that, no, John Kerry hadn't said rap was his "favorite" kind of music; he'd said it was "interesting" and maybe "important."

Without exception, the callers were polite, softspoken and manifestly friendly. As I recall, some were Democrats, some Republicans, but all were fans of the host's five-times-weekly show, and all were surprised that, as a man of formidable intelligence and (most of the time) civility, he would carelessly attribute to John Kerry something that Kerry had not said.

"He did say it!" the host insisted, again and again. "He said it was his favorite kind of music!"

Each of the callers seemed embarrassed by the host's tenacity. It would have been very simple, after all, for him to say, "No, all right, I see your point, Kerry didn't literally say rap was his favorite music - but you do get my point, don't you? John Kerry is too susceptible to dangerous cultural and political attitudes...." Or whatever.

But he didn't. He stuck to his demonstrably erroneous position, grew increasingly irritated and finally went ballistic over "all this nitpicking!"

It was my first whiff of the fear-stink coming off Republican flackers in what had been looking like a slam-dunk reelection year.

Similar nitpicking is an apt, and necessary, response to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad campaign against nominee Kerry. There are literally dozens of points of contention, some favoring Kerry, some casting doubts on his character, and political news junkies have been listening to the back-and-forth for a couple of weeks now.

For the moment I want to zoom in on the ads' tactic of juxtaposing the closeup shots of the anti-Kerry veterans with footage of the young Kerry's testimony in a 1971 Senate hearing. Kerry is periodically heard speaking (in that unfortunate Boston Brahmin drone) a litany of U.S. atrocities.

What the ads omit is the information that, rather than personally denouncing the atrocities and those who committed them, the young Kerry is quoting the testimony of other veterans at the "Winter Soldier" conference he had attended in Detroit. Rather than a lone hatchet man betraying his fellow warriors, he was testifying to a point of view growing ever more pervasive among his countrymen and his brothers-in-arms.

Confronted with the ad's distortion technique on weekend-before-last's Fox News Sunday, neocon luminary Bill Kristol (also normally a presentable Republican spokesman in non-print media appearances) blustered that the misrepresentation "wasn't important." Nitpicking, I guess.

It will take volumes of history and memoir - and probably a few good novels - to begin to sort out the welter of jangling, crossed perceptions among the veterans of the Swift Boat fleet and all the rest caught up in the Vietnam theater of war. And none of us gets to tell any of those vets what he should think and feel, or what long-steeping resentments he is allowed to harbor.

But it is true that while the Swift Boat vets are entitled to their opinions, they aren't entitled to their own set of facts.

As to the rest of us, if democracy is to work, people have to pay attention. Most of what's been passing lately for political discourse in America is not my favorite kind of music.

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