- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2004

A distinguished politician down South recalls an incident from his past illustrating the risks of campaigning on your biography.

“It was my first statewide race, for state attorney general,” he recalls, “and I thought everything was going pretty well. I was young and still had all my hair, and everywhere I went people smiled, eager to shake my hand, and promised to vote for me. Then my opponent accused me of having flunked the bar exam three times.

“It wasn’t a lie, exactly, but it wasn’t quite correct. I had failed the bar exam twice, which is not rare, as any lawyer will tell you. But all I could say to defend myself was, ‘I didn’t flunk it three times, I only failed it twice.’ That was not very persuasive to the average voter, and I knew my goose was cooked.”

John Kerry is learning the very same lesson, that once you’re put on the defensive about something that you had rather not talk about it’s difficult to change the subject: Not all of his Purple Hearts are suspect, only two of them are. Or maybe it’s only one. Or was that the Silver Star? Voters, who don’t always pay close attention to the nuances or even the details, are likely to remember only that questions were raised about his medals. (Were those the medals he threw away?)

A politician’s reputation for telling the truth, particularly about how he won combat decorations, is a lot like a woman’s reputation for virtue. Once veracity and virtue are subjects for public discussion, both pols in trouble and careless damsels can only suffer. Close only counts if you’re pitching horseshoes.

Monsieur Kerry brought up the subject of his war heroics himself, and politicians of both parties can’t imagine why. His bizarre salute and his goofy greeting (“I’m John Kerry, reporting for duty”) at the Democratic National Convention was an invitation to the Swift Boat skeptics, and there are apparently a lot of them among the men he served with in Vietnam.

Bringing up the subject was risky enough, but by taking on the skeptical veterans — the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — the Kerry campaign surely knew it would transform a story with limited exposure to the kind of press feeding frenzy that, once begun, is impossible to contain. “They’ve turned this into a raging national press story,” William Carrick, a sometime Democratic strategist, told the New York Times. “It’s certainly keeping Kerry from discussing his own issues and agenda and getting on the offensive.” Another Democrat “close to the campaign,” otherwise unidentified, sees it in an even grimmer light: “When you’re basically running on your biography and there are ongoing attacks that are undermining the credibility of your biography, you have a really big problem.”

Monsieur Kerry and his wise men (and women) may figure that once challenged they had no choice but to engage the argument, risks and all. Their internal polling is showing them that the veterans’ skepticism of Monsieur Kerry’s Purple Hearts, which seemed to fall on him like stars on Alabama, is sowing growing public doubts.

The demand that George W. Bush denounce the veterans’ television commercials and “make” them cut it out (it’s not at all clear how this could be done, short of calling in an air strike), will inevitably shift the focus to the $60 million worth of smear commercials, a lot of them paid for by the billionaire George Soros, aimed at the president over the past month.

John Kerry treated the podium in Boston as if it were a movie set, surrounding himself with friendly Vietnam veterans and devoting nearly a quarter of his acceptance speech to his service in Vietnam, for which President Bush has been generous with his praise, repeated yesterday.

Presidential candidates who run as war heroes have to be very careful that their heroics were actually and unquestionably heroic. Otherwise, like Monsieur Kerry, unwary candidates invite unwelcome scrutiny. Authentic heroes never indulge in braggadocio and rarely even want to talk about their medals and how they won them. Harry Truman was a veteran of the brutal trench warfare of World War I but never boasted of it. John F. Kennedy, whose heroics as skipper of PT-109 were definitely the right stuff, mocked the idea that he was a hero: “I’m a hero only if you think getting your boat shot out from under you is heroic.”

Monsieur Kerry figured that his tales from South Vietnam would insulate himself from all questions. He figured wrong. Feeding frenzies can devour the unlikeliest people. A late education is always the most expensive kind.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.


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