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Reality politics, reality TV

Putting ordinary citizens on national TV.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is greeted by fellow Vietnam veteran Jim Rassman, right, before a rally, Saturday Jan. 17, 2004, in Des Moines, Iowa. Rassman says Kerry saved his life during combat. Charlie Neibergall / AP

Wherever Pres. Bush goes, cameras follow. Employees at Nuthin' Fancy Cafe in Roswell, New Mexico, found themselves on television after President Bush stopped in for some ribs.

But this phenomenon is hardly limited to the incumbent.  Clearly, Jim Rassmann helped John Kerry win the Democratic caucuses in Iowa and added to his bounce in New Hampshire and Iowa.

But who the hell is Jim Rassmann?  Until last Friday, he was a Republican, a former sheriff‘s deputy in Florence, Oregon, who was spending most of his retirement growing orchids. 

That‘s when he visited a local book store and opened up Douglas Brinkley's book about Kerry, “Tour of Duty.”  He found the page that told of how Lieutenant John Kerry dragged a Green Beret out of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, nearly 35 years ago.  Rassmann thought he ought to give Kerry‘s campaign a call and do some volunteering,  in so much as he was that Green Beret.  When he said volunteer, he meant stuffing envelopes or something.  Kerry's handlers had an entirely different idea.

“I was watching the news, or at least reading the news, on my computer and decided that I'd give campaign a call and volunteer to help,” says Rassman. “It was my thought that they'd probably have me do something clerical  here in Oregon. About an hour after calling them, I got a call from some of John‘s campaign staff and they asked me what I was doing for the next few days, and the next thing I knew, I was in Iowa.”

Jim Rassmann appeared on the “Today” show on Thursday morning and shared his story: “Our boat was hit by something and I was blown overboard, and whatever that was that blew me over also wounded John Kerry in the arm.  The V.C.s started firing at me from both banks and I started to swim underwater towards the north bank.  Every time I came up for air, I'd get more fire and this went on until I finally came up for air about the fifth time.  And I noticed that the boats had come back to the rescue.  John, with one arm dangling and bleeding ran up to the bow and exposed himself to some really heavy fire, and he pull me up over the lip. It's kind of miraculous that neither one of us were hit, and I credit him with helping me out of that and saying my life.”

The director of the Veterans for Kerry campaign, John Hurley, said that Rassmann's appearance was a “windfall.”  And, since it happened, the campaign has not missed an opportunity.  Rassmann was in Iowa or the caucuses, he'll go to New Hampshire Friday, and at some point, he‘s going to go home and change his political registration from republican to democratic so he can vote in May‘s Oregon primary for the man who saved his life. 

So, is the Kerry camp taking inappropriate advantage of Jim Rassmann or is this that rarest of political events—organic good news? 

Craig Crawford, political analyst for MSNBC, contributor to “Congressional Quarterly,” was at that event where Rassman was introduced to the voters, as well as the medi.

He says, “I was at that event in Des Moines, and it was not very well staged. Actually, it was pretty much bedlam on site, so they didn't choreograph it as well as they could have, but in a way, it made it better.  It was kind of like unplugged.  This happened, it was a surprise.  It was a very genuine moment; there weren‘t a lot of dry eyes in the house.”

But is there a point where Rassman’s appearances could become a political liability if they kept bringing him out?

“Oh, sure,” says Crawford.  “I think there's a thin line between a genuine moment and exploiting someone and that is something they'll have to be careful about… In New Hampshire, they‘re talking about a lot because this is—this state has one of the highest percentages of veterans.  So, we'll probably see this guy out there a bit, too.” 

This was the 5th Story on Thursday’s ‘Countdown with Keith Olbermann.’ Countdown airs weeknights, 8 p.m. ET