So I guess John Kerry has been dining out for years on a story about how he spent Christmas 1968 on a gunboat in Cambodia. The one allegation made by the Swift boat Kerry haters that hasn't been largely debunked is, apparently, the charge that Kerry couldn't have been in Cambodia at Christmas; a couple of days ago a Kerry campaign worker backtracked, and now it seems that Douglas Brinkley is writing a New Yorker piece that will say Kerry was in Cambodia in January, not at Christmas (this is according to Drudge).
Drudge quotes the Kerry haters' leader, John O'Neill:
My question is how many people do you know have invented a turning point, one that is seared in his memory?
Er, how about Ronald Reagan?
Now, everyone knows that Reagan told a lot of stories that didn't bear scrutiny. But I'm thinking of one story in particular, about an experience Reagan claimed was "a turning point ... seared in his memory" -- a tale about his experience in uniform in World War II that's an out-and-out falsehood. It's not a true story tweaked slightly so it's somewhat more colorful, as Kerry's is -- it's pure fiction.
Starting on page 428 of President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, Lou Cannon, Reagan's most respected biographer, recalls reports that Reagan twice, in 1983 and 1984, told people (Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir in the first instance, Simon Wiesenthal and Rabbi Marvin Hier in the second) that he had been in Europe at the end of World War II and photographed the death camps.
In fact, Reagan's World War II military service was entirely stateside, as part of the the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps in Culver City, California.
Cannon summarizes the first report, from an Israeli newspaper article:
Reagan had told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, during his November 29, 1983, visit to the White House, that the roots of his concern for Israel could be traced to World War II when he photographed the Nazi death camps. Afterward, Reagan said, he had saved a copy of the death camp films for himself because he believed the day would come when people would no longer believe that six million Jews had been exterminated. Years later, said the article, Reagan was asked by a member of his own family if such an event had really occurred. "That moment, I thought this is the time for which I saved the film and I showed it to a group of people who couldn't believe their eyes," Ma'ariv quoted Reagan as saying. "From then on, I was concerned for the Jewish people."
The second report was relayed from Joanne Omang, a Washington Post reporter, to Cannon. Omang had spoken to Wiesenthal and Hier after they met with Reagan in February 1984; after her conversation with the two men, she asked Cannon, in Cannon's words, "when Reagan had photographed the Nazi death camps." "Never," Cannon replied. Omang then recounted what the two men had heard from Reagan -- a story that, Cannon says, was "nearly identical" to Shamir's:
In the version he told Hier and Wiesenthal, Reagan had shown the films soon after the war to a person who claimed that reports of extermination of the Jews had been exaggerated. "He [Reagan] said he was shocked that there would be a need to do that only a year after the war," Hier said.
A Washington Post reporter in Jerusalem got confirmation of the first story from Dan Meridor, the Israeli cabinet secretary; Shamir had told the story to the cabinet.
Cannon turned to the White House, which denied the story and acknowledged that Reagan had "never left the country" during the war. Chief of staff James Baker did say, however, that Reagan obtained a copy of a Holocaust film and, a year or two after the war ended, had shown it to "a Jewish friend" who doubted that the Holocaust had taken place.
Cannon subsequently wrote:
How could Shamir and Wiesenthal, fluent in English and known for their grasp of detail, have misunderstood so completely what Reagan said to them in two different meetings more than two months apart? What Jew would doubt the existence of the Holocaust?
Remember -- this was Ronald Reagan, God's President, who won the Cold War single-handed and was a man of the highest character. I'd be surprised if any of the people who will damn Kerry for bending the truth would want Reagan held to the same standard.
Incidentally, Cannon (page 427) also notes another little bend of the truth of Reagan's war record, this one in his own hand:
"By the time I got out of the Army Air Corps, all I wanted to do -- in common with several million other veterans -- was to rest up awhile, make love to my wife, and come up refreshed to a better job in an ideal world," Reagan wrote in his 1965 autobiography. He had spent his nights at home throughout World War II.