Here in the city where Republican swiftboating was invented, we have good reason to wonder what's really at the heart of it. In 2004 when the character assassins went after John Kerry, I assumed their motivation was straight-up cynicism. Muddy him up so Bush will look better.
But this new assault on Wendy Davis makes me wonder if my assessment was superficial. Maybe there was always something deeper in it than simple opportunism. Is it that Republicans look at Democrats like Kerry and Davis and see people who have eclipsed them according to their own values?
There simply is no question that John Kerry was a war hero, with a decorated service history. There is no question that Wendy Davis was a young single-mother from a poor family who got through Harvard Law School -- a story straight from Horatio Alger.
Is that what it is? Especially now in the Age of Roger Ailes, I wonder sometimes if Foxoholic conservatives have been stroked into believing they are a Chosen, a species, a people endowed with superior personhood. Does it just drive them right out of their skulls, then, when moderate Democrats outdo them according to their own purported values?
And let me say right off the bat that Wayne Slater's original story in The Dallas Morning News was not character assassination but good old fact-checking gotcha journalism of a type that has paid my own rent for a good many years. If Davis said this and Slater could prove that, his story was fair game.
But not a very big story, would you say? She got her age wrong by two years when she said she lived in a trailer? She said she paid her way through law school, but now her ex-husband says he paid for some of it?
Listen to me: After lifetimes spent interviewing people about their own lives, I know and Wayne Slater knows that nobody remembers his own life with perfect precision or even much precision. People think they do, especially smart people, but they do not. Dates slide. Stories meld. Names blur. Everything drifts into personal mythology. It's how people are.
Sure, it would have been smart for Davis to take time to sit down with a tough staffer who knew how to pin her down on details before people started writing speeches and ad copy for her. But here's another thing Slater and I both know: No candidate who hasn't yet been the subject of Prime Time glare ever does that ahead of time. They do it only after they get good and burned.
Beforehand, they don't know why it's necessary. They don't like doing it. The staff members don't want to do it. No one wants to act like a damn reporter. So now Wendy Davis does know why details are important. Now she's ready to rock and roll.
Where the thin gruel of Slater's story got turned into dirt stew was in the after-writing, like the essay by Morning News editorialist Tod Robberson. Robberson took small flubs, mixed them together with innuendo and came up with ... go on, you guess! What do the Foxoholics always come around to when they get up a good mad lather? You've seen it. All red in the face, eyes spinning around, they're about to start talking about ...
Sex! Yeah! Robberson writes about the time Davis, a married woman, took herself up to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Alone!
"Something happened while she was up there," he says (and we imagine a raunchy saxophone and rattling snare drum in the background, indicating that something dirty is about to happen). "The couple apparently drifted apart, as can happen when two people are separated for such a long period. There are hints of infidelity."
Oh, come on. Please. What hints? Wait, wait, don't tell me. Even if there are hints of infidelity but nobody got shot and killed over it, can't you just keep it to yourself, Tod? Do you really want to be out here in the street stooped over wringing your hands and rolling your eyes around like that?
Sadly, he does. He writes, "Uh-oh, suddenly, this isn't turning into the kind of story we want to tell our children ... Maybe the true story was so horrendous that Wendy Davis sought deliberately to keep it from public view. Maybe she feared that if she started correcting the skewed public perception of her background, it would open a can of worms."
Horrendous, Tod? What on earth could she have done that was horrendous? Has she been seen grabbing song birds from the air and gulping them down? I would find that fairly horrendous, I guess. But if you had something truly horrendous wriggling in your paws, I do not believe you would be so shy and coy about bringing it to our front door.
The camp of her opponent, Greg Abbott, of course, was not shy or coy. They were off to the races with it. Matt Hirsch, Abbott's spokesman, said "Senator Wendy Davis systematically, intentionally and repeatedly deceived Texans for years about her background, yet she expects voters to indulge her fanciful narrative."
But see, there it is. The narrative. That's what they're really after. It's the underlying truth of her story that drives them to the swiftboats.
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I'm still curious about Davis. There are details of her political past in Fort Worth that I find intriguing, if not troubling. Was she a little too fast to accommodate conservatives on the City Council who wanted to trim the budget by trimming city pensions? What's the full story there? But of course Abbott isn't going to raise that question, because cutting pensions will only make her look better in the eyes of his own base.
So it's back to the cheesy paperback bodice-ripping stuff: What did she do all alone up there in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during those long winter months? Why would any good Texas girl go to Cambridge, Massachusetts, by herself anyway?
The real story here, the spectacle, is not in the questions raised but in the people who raise them. It's this same thing again and again: Democrats from the president on down are not who or what they appear to be. They are The Other, beings whose true stories are so horrendous that they cannot be told, only hinted at with saxophone and snare drum. Ba-bump!
I was wrong when I wrote this all off to simple opportunism. It's probably way worse than that.