- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

War can bring out the best in a man, but sometimes men who excel in war are flops — even flip-flops — when peace falls across the land.

John Kerry, for example. He didn’t stay in Vietnam long, but long enough to shoot up a hooch, collect three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star. For this he rightly earned the nation’s gratitude, which is more than a considerable number of politicians of both parties earned for their draft dodging, bobbing and weaving.

But then he came home and joined the war against the war, working in behalf of the interests of North Vietnam. Monsieur Kerry’s work with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War may turn out to be the most explosive land mine of the campaign, much in the way that Willie Horton was the land mine that inflicted the fatal cut on Michael Dukakis in 1988. Massachusetts has become a deadly source of poison for the Democrats.

This is the issue that the Republican high command is rightly eager to leave alone. Monsieur Kerry answered when his country called him to the colors. George W. was no chicken hawk, having served honorably as an Air National Guard fighter pilot whose call-up never came, but he nevertheless can’t say much to Monsieur Kerry about military service, except thanks, and no thanks for the memories. But others can.

Neither George H.W. Bush nor the Republican high command put the famous Willie Horton television commercial on the air. It was Al Gore who discovered Willie first, in the Democratic primaries, but it was an independent Republican advocacy group that made him famous months later. The Willie Horton commercial is remembered, thanks to the clever Democratic disinformation campaign, as fraudulent and dishonest, but no one has ever challenged its facts. Willie was black, but the men who made the commercial had nothing to do with that. Willie was a convicted rapist who raped again on the furlough granted by the little Duke, and the Republicans had nothing to do with any of that, either. (Eager to be properly politically correct and anxious never to offend, I always insisted on using a photograph of the blond, blue-eyed, WASP-y Robert Redford to illustrate my columns about Willie and the little Duke, each time carefully captioned “Not Willie Horton.”)

Willie was nevertheless a painful object lesson for the Democrats in 1988, and Monsieur Kerry is trying now to sell the piety that any criticism of his lobbying for North Vietnamese interests after he came home is out of bounds. The chicken hawks can’t play on his court.

Jed Babbin, a deputy secretary of defense in the first Bush presidency, writes in the American Spectator that some of the Vietnamese POWs are already on the boil, eager to make Monsieur Kerry pay for intensifying and prolonging their misery at the Hanoi Hilton with his evangelistic work at the side of Jane Fonda. Faux KERRY-FONDA bumper stickers are sprouting in Washington, Atlanta, Los Angeles and other places, and the Internet is buzzing with “testimonials” from men whose arms and legs, but not spirit and resolve, were broken in Ho Chi Minh’s torture cells while the monsieur and his ideological doxy were bucketing about the country smoking pot, drinking wine and telling lies about the men Monsieur Kerry left behind in Vietnam.

Lt. Col. Tom Collins, an Air Force pilot who spent eight years in a North Vietnamese prison cell, recalls to Mr. Babbin the way his captors used Monsieur Kerry: “There was the old line [the interrogators] often used: ‘There are two ways.’ You can confess your crimes and denounce your government as … [John Kerry and his men] did and things will be ‘very good’ for you, or you can continue to ‘have a bad attitude’ and things will be ‘very bad.’ So things continued to be ‘very bad.’”

Mr. Collins recalls how his captors gloated when Monsieur Kerry and other veterans threw their medals over a temporary fence surrounding the Capitol. (In Monsieur Kerry’s case this was only a pretense. He threw someone else’s medals and kept his own, which he framed years later for the wall in his Senate office.) “Now you hear the truth about this,” his captors told Mr. Collins. “‘This is what your whole country thinks.’”

Bill Clinton, who dodged the draft and went to England to organize protests against his government, faced a similarly explosive past. But the man from Hot Springs knew, during that low and dishonorable decade of the ‘60s, that he had to protect his “viability within the system.” Monsieur Kerry, who has none of the Clinton smarts, figured the ‘60s and his gig with Jane would last forever. In November, we’ll see.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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