AS I DROVE THROUGH two security checkpoints the other morning to reach my office, which is half a block from the U.S. Capitol, I thought, I’m damn glad John Kerry is going overboard on Vietnam.
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.)
References to Vietnam have an additional benefit for Kerry, for that war symbolizes the harm that can occur when a government misleads the citizenry about a war. For decades, conservatives and Republicans have used Vietnam to accuse Democrats of being wimps on national security and unpatriotic or even treasonous. (Remember how the right went gaga over Clinton’s anti-war activities.) Kerry and his advisers have deftly turned Vietnam into a double liability for Bush.
In these post-9/11 and orange-colored days, to defeat a wartime president — even one who, in botching a war, has undermined the necessary campaign against al Qaeda — Kerry may have to prove he not only has the right ideas and the right experience but the right stuff. Threatening to lead a filibuster in the Senate to block drilling in the Alaskan wilderness is not quite sufficient. Nor is having mounted an inquiry into CIA connections to drug runners during the Contra
war in Nicaragua. So, when I stare into the sunglasses of police officers who stop me and check my car before I can head down Constitution Avenue, reminding me that I am working in a potential war zone — and when voters gaze at their television sets and see pictures of helicopters, limousines and trucks and are told that any of these vehicles can deliver the next blow to our country — I am
thankful Kerry pulled off some derring-do three decades ago. Who would have thought that Vietnam might save us from warmongers?
A TV ad from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a 527 advocacy group (formed to raise unregulated soft money), accuses John Kerry of lying about his war record and betraying his comrades by later opposing the Vietnam War. Here is some of the fallout:
“It’s notable that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was formed not by a Swift Boat veteran but by Merrie Spaeth, a Republican PR hack from Houston whose late husband ran for the office of lieutenant governor in Texas with George W. Bush.”
“They did the same thing to John McCain in 2000 — the same group. In support of the same crowd.”
on The Daily Show, August 9
“I deplore this kind of politics. I think the ad is dishonest and dishonorable. As it is, none of these individuals served on the boat [Kerry] commanded . . . I think John Kerry served honorably in Vietnam . . . I think the Bush campaign should specifically condemn the ad . . . I can’t believe the president would pull such a cheap stunt.”
The White House Bulletin, August 5
Press Gaggle by Scott McClellan, aboard Air Force One, en route to Columbus, Ohio, August 5:
Q: Do you — does the president repudiate this 527 ad that calls Kerry a liar on Vietnam?
Mr. McClellan: We have been very clear in stating that, you know, we will not — and we have not and we will not question Senator Kerry’s service in Vietnam. I think that this is another example of the problem with the unregulated soft-money activity that is going on. It does nothing to elevate the discourse. We hope the Kerry campaign will join us in calling for an end to all the unregulated soft-money ads and activity.
Q: So the president joins McCain in criticizing this particular ad?
Mr. McClellan: We hope the Kerry campaign will join us in calling for an end to all the unregulated soft-money ads and activity that are going on.
Q: Scott, more specifically, though, will the president or the campaign ask this particular group to pull this particular ad off the air?
Mr. McClellan: We’re calling for a cessation to all the unregulated soft-money activity, and we hope that the Kerry campaign will join us.
—Compiled By Michael Hoinski