Joshua Muravchik, writing in today’s Washington Post, has it exactly right:

“Most of the debate between the former shipmates who swear by John Kerry and the group of other Swift boat veterans who are attacking his military record focuses on matters that few of us have the experience or the moral standing to judge. But one issue, having nothing to do with medals, wounds or bravery under fire, goes to the heart of Kerry’s qualifications for the presidency and is therefore something that each of us must consider. That is Kerry’s apparently fabricated claim that he fought in Cambodia.”

Muravchik’s blunt piece, carefully surrounded on three sides of the Post’s op-ed page by pro-Kerry, anti-Swiftvet gush from the predictable likes of David Broder, David Ignatius, and E.J. Dionne,  carefully leads us through all the times, from 1979 to 2003, that Kerry has publicly reiterated his claim to have spent Christmas in 1968 on a secret but illegal mission inside Cambodia, at a time “when the president of the United States [when] telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia,” as Kerry declared on the Senate floor in 1986, arguing against U.S. aid for the Nicaraguan contras fighting the Marxist Sandinista regime there.

The memory of that fateful Yule of 1968 was “seared — seared — in me,” Kerry said.

Now, of course, as Muravchik points out, even Kerry’s own campaign people have made it clear that it’s pretty doubtful that Kerry was never in Cambodia during either the season to be jolly or any other season during his four-month tour of duty in 1968-69:  

“However seared he was, Kerry’s spokesmen now say his memory was faulty. When the Swift boat veterans who oppose Kerry presented statements from his commanders and members of his unit denying that his boat entered Cambodia, none of Kerry’s shipmates came forward, as they had on other issues, to corroborate his account. Two weeks ago Kerry’s spokesmen began to backtrack. First, one campaign aide explained that Kerry had patrolled the Mekong Delta somewhere ‘between’ Cambodia and Vietnam. But there is no between; there is a border. Then another spokesman told reporters that Kerry had been ‘near Cambodia.’ But the point of Kerry’s 1986 speech was that he personally had taken part in a secret and illegal war in a neutral country. That was only true if he was ’in Cambodia,’ as he had often said he was. If he was merely ‘near,’ then his deliberate misstatement falsified the entire speech.

“Next, the campaign leaked a new version through the medium of historian Douglas Brinkley, author of ‘Tour of Duty,’ a laudatory book on Kerry’s military service. Last week Brinkley told the London Telegraph that while Kerry had been 50 miles from the border on Christmas, he ‘went into Cambodian waters three or four times in January and February 1969 on clandestine missions.’ Oddly, though, while Brinkley devotes nearly 100 pages of his book to Kerry’s activities that January and February, pinpointing the locations of various battles and often placing Kerry near Cambodia, he nowhere mentions Kerry’s crossing into Cambodia, an inconceivable omission if it were true.

“Now a new official statement from the campaign undercuts Brinkley. It offers a minimal (thus harder to impeach) claim: that Kerry ‘on one occasion crossed into Cambodia,’ on an unspecified date. But at least two of the shipmates who are supporting Kerry’s campaign (and one who is not) deny their boat ever crossed the border, and their testimony on this score is corroborated by Kerry’s own journal, kept while on duty. One passage reproduced in Brinkley’s book says: ‘The banks of the [Rach Giang Thanh River] whistled by as we churned out mile after mile at full speed. On my left were occasional open fields that allowed us a clear view into Cambodia. At some points, the border was only fifty yards away and it then would meander out to several hundred or even as much as a thousand yards away, always making one wonder what lay on the other side.’ His curiosity was never satisfied, because this entry was from Kerry’s final mission.”

So which is it? “Near” Cambodia? “Between” (I love that!) Cambodia and somewhere else? In Cambodia three or four times but not over Christmas? In Cambodia just once, but who knows when? Huh?

Muravchik continues:

“Kerry has repeated his Cambodia tale throughout his adult life. He has claimed that the epiphany he had that Christmas of 1968 was about truthfulness. ‘One of the things that most struck me about Vietnam was how people were lied to,’ he explained in a subsequent interview. If — as seems almost surely the case — Kerry himself has lied about what he did in Vietnam, and has done so not merely to spice his biography but to influence national policy, then he is surely not the kind of man we want as our president.”

Meanwhile, Kerry’s defenders, while screaming, a la E.J. Dionne about a “smear campaign” by the supposedly Bush-financed Swiftboat Veterans for Truth are busy with smears of their own–against the Swiftvets themselves. Here’s a nasty cartoon by Oliphant depicting the vets as beer-guzzling losers who speak with funny accents–just like all the Midwestern “flyover people” for whom our Democratic liberal elites claim to speak but which they actually have utmost disdain. They need their votes, but please!

Actually, as even the Post’s Michael Dobbs observed in a long Sunday story about Swiftgate, the Swiftvets–who didn’t have the advantages of marrying ketchup billionairesses, got jobs as “teachers, accountants, surveyors and oil field workers” when their tours of duty were up. And one of the Swifties, Paul Galanti, spent seven years suffering torture for his country as a POW in North Vietnam. As the Northern Alliance Radio Network comments:

“This is such a disgusting display that I find it difficult to describe it in polite terminology. Suffice it to say that Oliphant has aligned himself with the same quality of people who spat on veterans returning from honorable service because of the slander and lies of people like John Kerry. In Oliphant’s twisted viewpoint, the experience of a man who endured the worst privations of Hanoi’s torture for seven years is somehow trumped by a man who managed to finish only one-third of his one-year tour.”

And I’ll let Mark Steyn in the U.K. Telegraph have the last word:

“Nothing the ‘sleazoids’ [Kerry’s defenders’ word for any Vietnam vets who dare to contradict Kerry’s self-glorifying account of his heroism] say about Kerry is as bad as what he said about them 33 years ago in his testimony to Congress, when he informed the world that his comrades — his ‘band of brothers’ — had ‘personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads’ etc, throughout their time in Vietnam.

“Unlike John O’Neill’s book [the best-selling Unfit for Command], he didn’t bother to give specifics: the US Army in general was rife with ear-severers. If you want to know why Paul Galanti is appearing in an anti-Kerry ad, it’s because he first heard about this speech from his Viet Cong captors who cited it to try to persuade him and his fellow prisoners that resistance was now futile and they might as well cross over to the other side.

“I said a couple of weeks back that John Kerry was too strange to be President, and a week or two earlier that he was too stuck-up to be President. Since I’m on an alliterative roll, let me add that he’s too stupid to be President. What sort of idiot would make the centrepiece of his presidential campaign four months of proud service in a war he’s best known for opposing?”