"Senator Kerry," Sam Fox said at his confirmation hearing to be ambassador to Belgium, "I very much respect your dedicated service to this country. I know that you were not drafted — you volunteered. You went to Vietnam. You were wounded. Highly decorated. Senator, you're a hero."
Unfortunately for Mr. Fox, that isn't what he said when someone — he can't remember who it was — asked him for a contribution to support the independent group that was attacking Senator Kerry with the infamous "Swift Boat" ads during the 2004 campaign. Mr. Fox can't remember who asked, but he said yes to the tune of $50,000.
It cost him the ambassadorship this week.
The question is whether it will do any good.
There's nothing really unusual about Mr. Fox's story except the ending. He's the biggest Republican donor in Missouri and one of the biggest nationally. He was a top supporter and fundraiser for George Bush both in 2000 and 2004, and so were his sons. He chairs the Jewish Republican Coalition, and the president reportedly calls him "Foxie." He has given close to a million dollars in soft money to Republicans.
No one ever suggested that Mr. Fox didn't have whatever qualifications are required to be ambassador to Belgium. In fact, he had the support of a number of powerful Democrats, including his home state Senator, Claire McCaskill, and 2000 vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman.
But Kerry decided to make an issue of Fox's Swift Boat contribution, and Fox's effort to justify it on the "everybody does it" rationale fell on deaf ears. "Mr. Senator, when I'm asked, I just generally give. I did it because politically it's necessary if the other side's doing it."
"Tough politics I accept," said Senator Chris Dodd, Kerry's fellow Democrat, a committee member and current presidential candidate. "Strong partisan views I accept. But he went over the line."
The White House, watching Democrats get in line against Fox, announced it was withdrawing his nomination. "A great shame," Arlen Specter called the demise of the Fox-to-Belgium bid. "I think that kind of political retribution is out of line."
The issue is not retribution, but responsibility. Guys like Sam Fox finance the worst of politics, but don't take responsibility for it. Just saying yes to someone, they explain later. Can't even remember who — although it must have been someone with enough clout to command a $50,000 yes.
So long as that explanation works, they'll keep saying yes. So long as the funnel stays open, the garbage will keep flowing. Unless there is a price to be paid for supporting it, the price will be paid by the targets and the voters. If the candidates aren't going to be held responsible for the mud thrown on their behalf, at least the people paying for the mud should be.
The Supreme Court has put independent groups beyond the reach of regulations aimed at candidates, based on the fiction that these groups really are outside the candidate's control. But the reality is that most of these groups depend for their financial support on people whose real ties are to the candidate, and who write them checks hoping and expecting that the candidate will be grateful. You can bet that when Sam Fox wrote that check for $50,000, he figured he was helping himself with the White House and Republican insiders, not making himself unconfirmable.
Would he have written the check if he knew what it would cost him? Of course not. That's the point.
"Sam Fox had every opportunity to disavow the politics of personal destruction and embrace the truth," Senator Kerry said in a statement this week after the withdrawal of the Fox nomination. "He chose not to. The White House made the right decision to withdraw the nomination. I hope this signals a new day in political discourse."
Whether it signals a new day in discourse remains to be seen, but Sam Fox's fall should at least make it a little more difficult for the next round of Swift Boaters to tap the usual suspects for funds.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.