By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I know lefties who have griped about Kerry’s pro-military extravaganza at the Democratic convention. The stage was crowded with generals and admirals. Kerry was introduced by former Senator Max Cleland, another Vietnam vet (who came back without three limbs). Kerry’s Swift Boat crewmates nearly formed a cancan line. And Kerry began his speech with a salute and the line: “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.”
The Democrats, no surprise, emphasized Kerry’s months as a war hero more than his years as a war protester. But this was the right move. The Bush administration’s recent terror alert — bogus or not — shows how easily the White House can make terrorism the number-one issue on the agenda. Pull a switch, and the warning light shifts from yellow to orange. Presto, the mess in Iraq — where Americans are dying every day — is no longer the big news of the day. Instead, the nation gets a new dose of the jitters. In Washington, more concrete barriers appear overnight, police start inspecting cars before they can drive by the House and Senate office buildings, and folks like me wonder why the hell we’re not telecommuting.
Terror is all Bush has — politically speaking. A majority of the public now tells pollsters the war in Iraq was a mistake and not worth the costs. They also say they believe Bush exaggerated the threat from Iraq to grease the way to war. And the economy is not rebounding enough to register with voters. The most recent monthly tally of jobs created — 32,000 — was about one-tenth the amount White House economists had predicted. (FYI: For the economy to keep up with the growing population, about 150,000 new jobs have to be created each month.) And worse for Bush, though underreported by the media, wages are being outpaced by inflation. Bush can try to run on his tax cuts and claim any recovery is better than no recovery. But that’s a difficult road for him. Since the start of his administration, he has consistently fared poorly when pollsters have asked people whether Bush understands their problems and cares more about them than corporate interests.
So Kerry will not have a hard time convincing many voters that he can do better with the economy and that he will not launch misconceived wars and poorly planned occupations. That leaves the so-called war on terrorism. How can Kerry prove he would more effectively handle this very real threat? He can cite policy initiatives — such as his calls to expand the Special Forces and fully fund first responders — and vow to forge better alliances with other governments. He can argue that he would have focused more on Afghanistan and not have ordered an unnecessary war in Iraq. (In recent days, there have been conflicting messages from the Kerry campaign. In his convention speech, Kerry repeatedly accused Bush of having misled the country to war. Still, he says that had he known in October 2003 what he knows now about Iraq’s absent WMDs, he still would have voted to grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq.) But policy aside, in challenging Bush on terrorism, Kerry most of all has to demonstrate he has the cojones to do the job.
ENTER VIETNAM. Sure, that was a long time ago. And last fall other commentators and I were saying, “Enough of this Vietnam War hero shtick already.” But the Kerry campaign, after first using his Vietnam service as a crutch, did something quite savvy. It had others tell Kerry’s Vietnam tale. Kerry talking about Nam was boring and self-serving. But when Jim Rassmann, a former Green Beret and a Republican, came forward on his own and told how Kerry had saved his life, that had an impact — as did the testimony of Kerry’s crew mates. (A campaign to challenge the accounts of Kerry’s heroism conducted by several Vietnam vets and financed by a major Republican donor is unlikely to change the basic contours of the Kerry-as-war-hero story.)
In our cultural-political memory, time can collapse. And the Kerry team has succeeded in placing side by side two competing images: Kerry the combat leader who took decisive action, and Bush the MIA Guardsman who froze for seven minutes in a Florida elementary school classroom when informed the nation was under attack.
(Thanks to Michael Moore’s uneven film, the Bush administration has had to address the matter of the president’s initial response — or lack thereof — to the 9/11 attacks. And his aides have resorted to ludicrous explanations. Andrew Card, his chief of staff, recently said, “The president handled that particular moment particularly well. He could not have introduced fear to those young students, or to a national press corps that was watching.” But at the time, Bush had no idea of the extent of the attack under way — which means he should have moved quickly to assess the threat — and he could have used at least two of those minutes to concoct a reassuring excuse before leaving the classroom.)