I confess upfront that I'm not neutral in this year's Illinois Senate race. For numerous reasons I'll stipulate, I'm rooting for GOP Rep. Mark Kirk over Democratic State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.
[IMGCAP(1)]That said, the flap over Kirk's misstatements about his military service is reaching ridiculous proportions — exaggerated into a mini-scandal by Democrats and both local and national media.
And now, the left is peddling sleazy allegations that Kirk is gay as payback for his vote — cast for defensible reasons — against repeal of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
I've known Kirk for nearly 10 years, since his first term in Congress, and in 42 years in Washington, I've rarely encountered a Member with a greater range of expertise or better judgment.
He's the leader of the moderate Republican Tuesday Group and has formed in-depth bipartisan back-bench study groups on Iran and China that don't just study, but actually affect, U.S. policy.
Kirk persuaded the Bush administration to install the most advanced U.S. anti-missile radars in Israel to provide a (temporary) cushion against Israel's need to launch a military strike against Iran's growing missile arsenal.
He's also the original author of a bill — passed overwhelmingly in both chambers — to convince Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program by cutting off its gasoline imports.
He has developed relationships with top-level Chinese officials who have made him at times better informed about turns in Chinese policy than Bush and Obama cabinet officers.
And, as a one-time employee of the World Bank, Kirk has deepened his expertise in global finance, enabling him to worry knowledgeably about the dangers of America's debt burden.
Moreover, if Kirk got elected to the Senate, he'd bolster a "big tent" GOP center that's deeply challenged by right-wing "purifiers."
He'd join serious players such as Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine in developing nonideologically-driven alternatives to Democratic policy.
At the same time, he enjoys the esteem of serious conservatives such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
As a House Member, Kirk bucked his party to support embryonic stem cell research and expanded children's health care. He also opposed — wrongly, in my view — oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Beyond national impact, Illinois would benefit from having a revived two-party system. Corrupt Republicans disgraced their party into impotence, and now Democrats — led by impeached former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich — are reaping the consequences of having near-absolute power.
I do not know Giannoulias, 34, but his record suggests that he deserves to be trailing Kirk, 50, in a heavily Democratic state — by 5 to 8 points, depending on the poll.
A basketball buddy of then-state Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), Giannoulias got elected state treasurer with Obama's backing on the strength of his background as chief loan officer of his family's apparently successful Broadway Bank.
But now the bank has collapsed because of shaky mortgage investments — and, the Chicago Tribune has documented, $20 million in loans to two convicted organized crime figures.
And, as state treasurer, Giannoulias presided over the loss of $160 million in citizen funds invested in the state's college savings program.
There's evidence that the Obama White House wanted Giannoulias to withdraw from the race in favor of a more-electable candidate, but Kirk thinks Obama's inability to oust Rep. Joe Sestak (D) from the Pennsylvania Senate race has weakened his persuasiveness.
So, in what looks like a desperate effort to gain footing, Giannoulias and the Democratic National Committee are making a mountain — with media help — out of what Kirk admits were misstatements of his military record.
The substance is that Kirk has said — more than once — that he was named the Navy's Intelligence Officer of the Year in 1999 for his role during the air war against Serbian forces in Kosovo.
In fact, his unit received the Vice Admiral Rufus L. Taylor Award from the National Military Intelligence Association after being officially nominated by the Navy.
This misstatement is being likened to Democratic Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's implication that he served "in" the Vietnam War when he actually served "during" it — in the United States.
Democrats are also charging that Kirk has claimed he was "the only Member of Congress to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom," which would be closer, but Kirk actually has made it clear that he served "stateside" during the Iraq War.
However, Kirk, a Navy Reserve commander, actually has flown in hostile environments in Iraq (during pre-war no-fly-zone operations) and Kosovo and has devoted time during Congressional recesses to serve twice in Afghanistan and often in the Pentagon.
Giannoulias has never served in the military.
Politico's Mike Allen sneered that "under the logic" of Kirk's unit award, "since I once worked at the Washington Post, I could say I won the Pulitzer Prize!"
Except, that Kirk actually was "the team leader" of the group that won the intelligence award, his commanding officer wrote at the time, and Kirk exhibited "unmatched managerial and planning skills" and "unmatched knowledge of foreign capabilities."
One superior wrote in a fitness report that Kirk was "head and shoulders above any other intelligence officer I have ever met."
In a statement issued in response to the flap, retired Capt. Clay Fearnow said Wednesday that, "when I nominated Mark for the Rufus Taylor Award, I thought it was more specific to Mark and not the team. In reality, there would have been no team without Mark Kirk's leadership and certainly there would have been no award."
On top of the military charges — or rather, out from under a rock — Michael Rogers, a professional "outer" of gay politicians, mainly Republican, is claiming that Kirk is gay. His blog post is gaining circulation.
It shouldn't make any difference if Kirk were gay — married for 10 years, but divorced last year, Kirk has flatly denied it — but Rogers' claims clearly have malicious intent and, if ever proven, could lead to Kirk's ouster from the military.
Rogers acted, he said, because Kirk voted against repeal of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the House last week.
Kirk said he did so because the chiefs of staff of the Army, Navy and Air Force and the commandant of the Marine Corps all said that any policy change should await the outcome of a Pentagon study of allowing openly gay people to serve in the armed forces.
Even Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who supports the change, has said he wishes the House had waited to pass the bill until the study was complete.
Kirk told me he's waiting for the study to determine his position on gays in the military. That's entirely defensible.
On the merits, I think there's no question who ought to get elected in Illinois — on talent, experience and judgment. But Illinois often plays by rules that have nothing to do with merit. I hope this year is different.