TED KENNEDY ANNOUNCED over the weekend that Kerry Healey, the Republican candidate for governor of Massachusetts, is guilty of "swiftboating." He blasted her "gutter politics," her "Karl Rove playbook," and her "politics of fear and smear." He condemned her for choosing "the low road" in her campaign against Democrat Deval Patrick.
What had Healey done to provoke such outrage? That was hard to say. As the Associated Press's Glen Johnson noted, Kennedy "did not specify the reason for his criticism." Apparently he was accusing Healey of trafficking in contemptible slurs that no one with a shred of decency should be associated with. If so, he used the wrong word. The term for engaging in groundless character-assassination isn't "swiftboating."
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, after all, were Vietnam combat vets and former POWs. Whatever else might be said about them, they had the moral standing to critique Senator John Kerry's Vietnam War -- and antiwar -- record during the 2004 presidential campaign.
But Kennedy's notorious slander of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987 didn't issue from any moral high ground. When he accused the distinguished jurist of favoring an America in which "blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters [and] rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids," the bombastic senator from Massachusetts was speaking from liberal malice and paranoia. Now he's doing it again, falsely accusing Healey of foul play without providing evidence for the charge.
The impetus for Kennedy's attack seems to have been last week's Healey TV ad, which highlights Deval Patrick's legal work on behalf of Carl Ray Songer, a prison escapee who murdered a Florida state trooper in 1973. After Songer was sentenced to death, Patrick won a stay of execution and later got his sentence reduced to life. As a result, a thug who ended a young cop's life with five bullets shot at point-blank range may eventually make parole. "While lawyers have the right to defend admitted cop-killers," Healey's ad asks, "do we really want one as our governor?"
Er, no -- to answer the ad's awkwardly-constructed question, we don't really want a cop-killer as our governor. What Healey presumably meant to ask was: "Do we really want such a lawyer" -- i.e., the kind who defends admitted cop-killers -- "as our governor?"
That is a fair question, and one that reasonable people can debate. Even ruthless criminals are entitled to legal representation, and a lawyer is not sympathetic to rape and murder just because his clients are rapists and murderers. "I personally despise criminals," the noted defense attorney Alan Dershowitz has written (in Letters to a Young Lawyer), "and always root for the good guys except when I am representing one of the bad guys."
But instead of making a principled defense of his decision to assist clients like Songer, Patrick attacks Healey for even bringing it up. He claims to be "proud of the work" he did in getting Songer's sentence reduced, yet he trots out surrogates like Kennedy to blast Healey when her campaign makes an issue of it. Well, which is it, counselor -- something you take pride in, or something no one should mention?
Even more muddled is Patrick's stance on Benjamin LaGuer, the convicted rapist with whom he exchanged letters and on whose behalf he twice wrote to the Parole Board -- not as LaGuer's lawyer, but as a private supporter.
Patrick claimed to believe that LaGuer deserved a new trial because the jury that convicted him was tainted by racism -- or perhaps because DNA testing would prove his innocence. He donated $5,000 toward a DNA test in 2001 -- but says now that he never bothered to learn the results. Twice he pleaded for LaGuer to be granted parole on the grounds that the jailhouse letters he wrote were "thoughtful, insightful, eloquent . . . humane." Yet today Patrick claims that he never wanted LaGuer set free, and "if I had urged his release, then I . . . made a mistake." On the other hand, he also insists he is "proud of what I did" in writing to the Parole Board -- and knowing what he knows now, he says, he would write those letters again.
It doesn't take a cynic or a Republican to contemplate such a snarl of self-contradictions and wonder whether Patrick has a problem telling the simple truth. Or to wonder if he always sympathizes more readily with criminals than with their victims. These are just the kinds of issues political campaigns are supposed to air. A candidate who raises them about her opponent isn't "taking the low road." Whether Ted Kennedy likes it or not, she's doing her job.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)