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Thursday, February 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Collin Levey / Times editorial columnist
Speaking in Seattle on Tuesday, John Kerry told a roomful of ex-Deaniacs that "for the second time in the last few days, a New England Patriot won one on the road." The crowd cheered because it knew what he meant: Patriot Kerry is a Vietnam veteran, winner of Purple Hearts and a Silver Star in Vietnam. And, by the way, he's a Vietnam veteran.
Did he mention that he was a Vietnam vet?
Kerry has been talking about his military credentials more or less since he got out of the military. His first bit of national political notice came from throwing other veterans' medals onto the White House lawn to protest the war. Vietnam has been a centerpiece of his Senate personality. And so far it has been working just fine in the campaign, matching up nicely against both Wesley Clark and Howard Dean.
His strategy for taking on a wartime president in the fall is thrilling in its lunacy. The party of Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis is aiming to disgrace President Bush on the basis of his military record.
Democratic National Committee Chief Terry McAuliffe took the first crack last weekend, accusing Bush of going AWOL in the National Guard. There's a lot more of this to come, one fears. Given Kerry's convoluted record of pro and con votes and statements on Iraq, he's clearly hoping that a little political pre-emption might neutralize the damage done by a heavily anti-war primary and the image of Democrats as the party of wobbly doubters.
Historically, Democrats have been the first to become frothy and indignant at suggestions that their lack of service translated into questionable patriotism. Clinton's no-show in Vietnam was angrily defended by Kerry himself. On Tuesday night, Kerry reiterated a refusal to make judgments about people's choices to go to jail or to Canada as conscientious objectors.
But while Kerry doesn't "know the facts" about Bush's service in Alabama and Texas Guard units, he also added that the questions about Bush's service are fair and should be answered by the White House. Huh?
In fact, though, while military service is a nice addition to a campaign's repertoire, it's overrated. Most Americans haven't served in the military and don't consider themselves second-class citizens. Bill Clinton never served but beat out two veterans in George Bush and Bob Dole. John McCain, for that matter, was beaten by George W. Bush despite McCain's heroic ordeal as a POW.
More surprising still is the suggestion that Americans may elect Kerry as a reward to a generation of Vietnam vets, who've been sometimes shabbily treated by their country. James Clyburn, the estimable African-American congressman whose endorsement helped account for Kerry's decent second-place showing in South Carolina, even says Vietnam, not Iraq, will be the real issue of the campaign.
He may even be right. Why do we care about military service in our leaders?
It's not solely about service and duty, though those are important things.
It's also about understanding the gravity of conflict and credibility in handling it. The military service of Kerry's hero, John F. Kennedy, was important because it bolstered his profile as a strong-defense Democrat at a moment of high tension in the Cold War.
Nobody has yet detected a similar forcefulness against foreign enemies from Kerry, only against domestic pharmaceutical companies, HMOs and "Big Oil." That didn't stop Clyburn from saying two nights ago that, even if Kerry's Vietnam patrol boat didn't have a name, "we're going to give it a name" like PT109.
Clyburn is undoubtedly sincere. If Kerry listens to very much such advice, however, he'll be walking close to the edge of turning his Vietnam experience into a campy political cliché, or worse.
Wherever Kerry is to be found these days, you don't have to look far to find his friend and supporter, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a triple amputee and fellow Vietnam vet. Cleland, who lost his seat to a Republican challenger in 2002, has been put forward at every stop as a martyr to alleged GOP slurs on his patriotism. In fact, as his hometown Atlanta Journal Constitution has reported in detail, Cleland's own campaign originated the strategy of meeting every criticism of his record on homeland security (he had voted 11 times for a Democratic Party-line effort to open up the new department to organized labor) by ginning up "feigned outrage" and accusing opponents of challenging his "patriotism."
Cleland made these alleged slurs a central theme in his Georgia re-election campaign. Kerry would be wise to take note of what happened next: Georgia voters listened carefully to both sides and then tossed Cleland out.
Voters honor the service and patriotism of military veterans. Indeed, so much so that they can be quickly turned off by use of such symbols cynically to evade scrutiny and accountability.
That's why Kerry's best move now might be to shut up about Vietnam. He's about two applause lines away from convincing voters that he's trying to cash in on a war that cost thousands of his fellow volunteers and draftees their lives.
Collin Levey writes Thursdays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.
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