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Dismissing the Swifties


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By Joe Klein

Time magazine


On the day that the swift boat controversy reached a rabid apogee -- that would be the day a Bush campaign lawyer resigned because of his ties to the Swifties, and Max Cleland made the stagy delivery of a protest letter to the Bush ranch -- a woman named Elba Nieves stood at a town meeting in Philadelphia and told John Kerry that she had recently been laid off.


The candidate proceeded to ask her a series of questions. She answered with quiet dignity. She had worked in a ribbon factory for four years. She said the company was having trouble keeping up with foreign competitors and was forced to close when it was refused a new bank loan. She was given no notice of termination, no severance package. Her shift -- about 300 people -- was simply called together at the end of a workday and dismissed. "They were changing the locks even before we left," she added. The audience, composed mostly of trade unionists, gasped and groaned.


I called Nieves the next day to check the details of her story, and, as it happened, there were some complicating factors.


First, she admitted that her question had been precooked -- her union had asked her to come to the event and tell the story. Kerry turned to Nieves immediately; her question was the first.


This, in itself, isn't a terrible thing: George Bush constantly manages to "find" small-business people at his town meetings whose companies are booming because of his tax cuts. But Nieves went on to tell me that she recently had been called back to work at the ribbon factory and refused to return, on the advice of her union, because the company wouldn't continue her health insurance.


Hmm, I thought: If I were a coldhearted political operative, I could get some rich friends to finance a group of Nieves' fellow employees -- perhaps those who had returned to work without health insurance -- call them Ribbon Workers for Truth and make this poor woman's life a trial. (As it is, I've acted as a Not-So-Swift Columnist for Truth by revealing some of the more problematic details of her story.)


Ribbon Workers for Truth would be a nasty bit of business. It would purposely elide the most important fact -- the larger truth -- of Nieves' story: that she was laid off, and in a particularly brutal way. As she left the factory on August 4, she had no idea how she would support her three children. She still doesn't know.


And the uncertainty of her fate is a question with enormous political ramifications: What do we, as a nation, do about the downside of economic globalization? In fact, the real reason why Ribbon Workers for Truth would exist would be to divert attention from that question.


The Ribbies would also turn Nieves' refusal to return to work without a health plan into a "character" issue -- and thus evade the essential ridiculousness of a health-insurance system that would usually provide Nieves care (through Medicaid) if she were on welfare but doesn't if she is working a full-time job for an employer without a health plan.


But we're not talking only about Elba Nieves here, are we? Now that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have turned out to be anything but -- the only "lies" they've turned up are a mistaken date or a mild Kerry exaggeration about operating in Cambodia and a Purple Heart received for a minor wound -- we are told their real gripe is that Kerry protested the war after he came home and sullied their service by testifying to atrocities committed by American troops in Vietnam.


These are heartfelt gripes, perhaps, but wrong on the merits. Kerry's protest was not only honorable, it was accurate. The war in Vietnam was an unnecessary disaster, entered into under false pretenses -- the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident -- and fought because of a mistaken intellectual theory: that the Vietnamese national liberation movement was part of an international communist conspiracy to overwhelm Asia. (The subsequent war between Vietnam and China put a crimp in that one.)


And, yes, there were atrocities aplenty. I spent three years in the 1980s writing about a platoon of former Marines, men I consider heroes, and several unburdened themselves of awful memories before we were done: tossing a Vietnamese prisoner out of a helicopter, shooting an obviously innocent woman civilian in the back, collecting the ears of enemy dead. It was a meaningless, despicable war, and insane brutality was not an uncommon reaction.


But we're not really talking about Vietnam here, are we? We are talking about the politics of misdirection, about keeping John Kerry on the defensive by raising spurious questions about his "character."


We may also be talking about Iraq -- and limiting Kerry's ability to question the President's decision to go to war. If so, the Swifties need not have bothered. Kerry hasn't shown much inclination to raise the real question about Iraq: Was it the right thing to do? And Bush hasn't shown much inclination to talk about the mixed, confusing effects of globalization on people like Elba Nieves. Which means there are nondebates on the two most important issues facing the nation. Not-So-Swift Columnists for Truth is appalled.

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