Friday, April 30, 2004

Sen. John Kerry has a problem with saying what he means and meaning what he says. This is hardly news, but it’s surprising that Mr. Kerry has not amended this peculiar trait since becoming the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate.

On April 23, 1971, after tossing a handful of ribbons and medals over the Capitol fence, Mr. Kerry spoke to a gathering of veterans. “This [Nixon] administration forced us to return our medals,” he said. Later that year, he told a Washington television interviewer: “I gave back … six, seven, eight, nine medals,” including, he added, his Bronze and Silver Stars, as well as his Purple Hearts. Except that he didn’t.

Mr. Kerry gave back several of his ribbons and the medals of other soldiers. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week, Mr. Kerry nevertheless claimed that he has never been anything but forthright about what exactly he tossed over the Capitol fence. “I never implied that I did it,” he said. “Medals and ribbons, there’s almost no difference in distinction, fundamentally. They’re symbols of the same thing.”

Maybe medals are ribbons. On “Good Morning America” Monday, however, ABC’s Charlie Gibson reminded Mr. Kerry that that’s not what he said in 1984, when Mr. Kerry was a Senate candidate. Back then, Mr. Kerry said that he had thrown only his ribbons, not his medals, emphasizing the difference to union leaders. Mr. Kerry said he had spoken “truthfully” in 1984. So medals are different from ribbons.

Or are they? On Monday morning, after the “Good Morning America” interview, the Kerry campaign Web site curiously added a line on its “D-Bunker” Web page saying, “For John Kerry, the symbolism of medals and ribbons is interchangeable.” So, medals aren’t in fact different from ribbons — symbolically speaking. Meanwhile, Mr. Kerry says he’s “proud” of his medals, which he, symbolically speaking, tossed over the Capitol fence.

Mr. Kerry has called all this a “phony controversy.” It might be “phony” in that he’s committed no crimes, but it’s a controversy that speaks volumes about responsibility: Mr. Kerry’s medals, and what they stand for, have been recklessly abused by blatant opportunism.

Neither can Mr. Kerry quite figure out what he means by “atrocities” and “war criminals.” On “Meet the Press” on April 19, Tim Russert asked Mr. Kerry whether he committed “atrocities” in Vietnam as he claimed in a 1971 interview. Mr. Kerry responded that “atrocities” was an “inappropriate word” but it was “honest.” When Mr. Russert asked him about his use of the term “war criminals” in that 1971 interview, Mr. Kerry said he was “honest,” but the words were “a little bit over the top.”

So were Mr. Kerry’s words honest or inappropriate and over the top? It’s not like he was accusing American soldiers of jaywalking. Appearing with him on Dick Cavett’s show in July 1971, fellow Vietnam veteran John O’Neill confronted Mr. Kerry about his use of the words “atrocities” and “war criminals” before a Senate committee hearing. Mr. Kerry conceded that he had never in fact actually seen anyone commit an atrocity, but that he had heard “reports.” Subsequent federal investigations have confirmed Mr. O’Neill’s version of war events.

So medals are ribbons, except when they’re not. Vietnam soldiers committed “atrocities,” except when they didn’t. They were also “war criminals,” except when they weren’t. If Mr. Kerry insists on waving the bloody shirt, we suggest he buy a dictionary.

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