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The bit players exhale

Times Staff Writer

After a year riding furious partisan seas, Americans -- exhilarated, queasy or just plain tired -- prepare this week to put campaign 2004 behind them.

For some, though, regaining a sense of equilibrium might take a little bit longer. They are the citizens who didn’t just cruise along on the great electoral ocean liner. They held the wheel for a moment or two, or forced a slight course correction or just got run over and left in the churning wake.

One challenged President Bush on his home turf and -- suffering a Texas-sized blowback -- struggles to keep his business afloat. Another, who accused Sen. John F. Kerry of being less than a model Navy officer during the Vietnam War, happily returns to his golf game and the repair of a landmark in his hometown. A third begins to relaunch her young career after being hounded and virtually imprisoned in her home by false charges that she had an affair with the Democratic candidate.

Their moments lasted longer than those that created other election-season celebrities, such as Tyler Crotty, the 13-year-old whose yawning, watch-gazing performance at a Bush campaign rally landed him on “Late Night With David Letterman,” or Don Mischer, the producer whose profane cry for more balloons (“No confetti. No confetti. No confetti. I want more balloons!”) became an unlikely sign off for the Democratic National Convention.

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Still -- whether their celebrity was short or long, welcome or unwanted -- all seemed resilient. And ready to move on.

Marian Carr Knox -- the 86-year-old retired secretary who became embroiled in the controversy over Bush’s Air National Guard service -- got one more phone call from a reporter last week and might have spoken for the whole group when she responded: “I really hope this is the last one of these calls that I get.”

Local newspaper editor

Before this year, the most controversial editorial W. Leon Smith ever penned was one calling for the formation of a new water district in Clifton, Texas.

But the table was set for bigger doings four years ago, when Smith and his partners at the Clifton Record opened another newspaper, the Iconoclast, 18 miles away in Crawford.

They figured that a town that would be home to a new president, George W. Bush, needed its own newspaper.

Initially supportive of Bush, editor-publisher Smith grew weary of the president and what he believed was his preoccupation with Iraq, at the expense of other issues. By late September, the journalist had decided it was time to endorse Kerry.

By 10 a.m. on the Wednesday that the tiny weekly hit the streets of Crawford, the paper’s three phone lines began ringing. It wasn’t until 8 or 9 that night that they quieted down.

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Half the circulation of 920 slipped away with canceled subscriptions. Local businesspeople ordered Iconoclast newsstands off their properties. Then they began pulling their ads.

“There were people who said we better leave town and we were a bunch of idiots and even using four-letter words with us,” Smith said.

What Smith didn’t expect -- what he said he never could have imagined -- was the second wave. When the phone started ringing again it was with people from around America, even Europe. They phoned and e-mailed words of support.

Then fans from around “blue” America began to order Iconoclast subscriptions. They took out ads. The Iconoclast actually grew its circulation, with 2,000 subscriptions from New York, California and beyond.

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Unfortunately, Smith said, he barely covers his costs for shipping those newspapers. Being a darling of The Left doesn’t pay the bills, as local advertising once did.

“It’s not going to last,” he said, “unless we do something else with the paper.”

Vietnam veteran

George M. Elliott, U.S. Navy captain, retired, had come to Kerry’s aid when the Massachusetts senator faced a tough reelection challenge in 1996. He testified to the Democrat’s distinguished service in Vietnam. But by the time 2004 rolled around, other Navy veterans were calling Elliott about what they saw as Kerry’s treasonous critiques of U.S. servicemen, more than 30 years earlier, after Kerry returned from his duty in Southeast Asia.

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The Democratic candidate had made his Navy duty a centerpiece of his campaign and a flattering biography -- historian Douglas Brinkley’s “Tour of Duty” -- painted the politician’s service as heroic. Elliott said that the book, and the Kerry diaries that informed it, persuaded him that his earlier view of the politician had been wrong.

So the retired Navy man joined the newly formed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose television ads became such a sensation last summer -- helping to blunt Kerry’s momentum after the Democratic National Convention.

That didn’t make it easy sledding for Elliott and some of his allies, though. Virtually all of those who served closest with Kerry were telling the press and public about the former lieutenant’s bravery and leadership in combat.

And Elliott conceded that his several shifting statements about Kerry -- some supportive and some not -- had made his own position more difficult.

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“I wore the flip-flop charge and perhaps rightfully so,” Elliott said last week, after Bush had been reelected.

But Elliott insists that his early praise of Kerry was based on misinformation. He thinks the Swift boat group did the right thing in questioning the onetime junior lieutenant’s service.

“Dan Rather made the remark that he had spent five years working on the story about President Bush in the National Guard,” Elliott said. “If he had spent five minutes looking into John Kerry’s record, that would have been a real coup.”

Elliott said the Swift boat veterans had served their purpose and would quickly disband.

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For Elliott, that means a return to the local country club (“I hope I can get my handicap down to less than 20") and fundraising for a group that hopes to restore the Boston, a historic floating lighthouse, near his home in Lewes, Del.

At 67, he chuckled at the idea that he would enter the public arena again.

“I have executed a specific power of attorney for my wife,” Elliott deadpanned. “If I ever mention going on a talk show, writing a book or running for public office, she has the authority to put me in a home.”

Young journalist

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Alexandra Polier didn’t find the transition as easy -- not surprising, because she was perhaps the election year’s least-willing celebrity.

It was early February and Kerry had virtually wrapped up the Democratic nomination when the Internet’s “Drudge Report” flashed: “A frantic behind-the-scenes drama is unfolding around Sen. John Kerry....”

The conservative-leaning website reported that other Democratic candidates believed Kerry’s campaign would implode, as major news organizations were prepared to reveal an extramarital affair. Soon, a British tabloid identified the purported mistress as Polier, 27, a former Columbia University journalism student and fledgling reporter.

As Polier later would describe her ordeal to New York magazine, she had been living in Kenya with her fiance and was hosting a dinner party one night when her cellphone began to ring suddenly and incessantly.

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With the media smelling a Monica Lewinsky-style scandal, Polier wrote, she endured the “worst” month of her life. She hid out to deny the paparazzi the picture they desperately wanted. Her parents had to stay away from their Pennsylvania home for a week. Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators discussed the Kerry “affair,” although no evidence had been presented to prove any such thing.

Polier wrote that she once had dated a young Kerry fundraising aide, enjoyed a friendly acquaintance with the Massachusetts senator and even discussed taking a position in the presidential campaign. In researching the magazine article, she believed she traced the “affair” rumor to an old high school friend.

“I started out as an ambitious young woman inspired by politics and the media,” Polier concluded. “I’ve ended up disenchanted with both.”

Keeping to a pledge in that article, Polier has not discussed the incident with the press. The Columbia University journalism graduate has renewed her career recently with several articles in Newsweek International and one in People, on Nobel Peace Prize-winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya.

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National Guard secretary

Marian Carr Knox had more than moved on from her career as a secretary with the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group of the Texas Air National Guard. She said she didn’t spend much time thinking about a young lieutenant who once served at Ellington Field south of Houston.

But then she said she began to hear reports about Bush’s service with the unit, his failure to take a flight physical and his early exit from his military obligation.

“There was this little thing on TV and they were talking about these documents about George Bush and this person said this was all a bunch of lies made up by the Democrats,” said Knox, herself a Democrat. “It kind of hacked me off.”

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Because she had worked for Lt. Col Jerry Killian, Bush’s one-time squadron commander, Knox said she felt she had to speak out.

Although Killian’s widow and son said the documents critiquing Bush’s service were fakes, Knox saw them differently. The documents appeared to be forgeries, she said, but the sentiments expressed were real.

Soon Knox got on the line with the Houston Chronicle. The morning the story ran, about a dozen reporters “just kind of pushed their way right into my kitchen.”

But Knox wasn’t talking any more. A limousine was waiting to sweep her, her son and a neighbor away for a flight to New York and an interview with Rather.

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Back home in Houston, Knox happily returned to her church social group and a book club.

“My whole family was for George Bush, so they gave me a hard time,” Knox said. “They thought they were right and, of course, I thought I was right. It’s just like religion. You don’t get into arguments with people, when you have to live with them.”


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