- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

There is no weaker position in presidential campaign politics than playing defense, and John Kerry has been on the defensive now for more than two weeks.

Many Democrats fear he waited too long to respond to the barrage of attacks from the Swift boat Vietnam veterans who charge he made up or exaggerated many of the combat exploits he has touted over his political career and has used to define his presidential candidacy.

There is no doubt the attack ads and the senator’s inexplicable delay in answering them have had a political impact among independents and veterans, raising new doubts about his truthfulness and character.

“The ads have been running very strong in this state, which has a high population of veterans,” said West Virginia Democratic Chairman Mike Callaghan, who thinks Mr. Kerry waited too long to answer them. “If I were Kerry, I would have responded sooner,” Mr. Callaghan told me. “It has had an impact.”

Other Democratic officials around the country, privately and publicly, agreed. Polling data pointed to an erosion of support for Mr. Kerry among a narrow band of undecided voters who could tip the election either way.

In Wisconsin, for example, another state where Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has run ads, top Democratic officials no longer make any pretense the state (which Al Gore carried in 2000) remains in Mr. Kerry’s column. “It’s going to be a tossup,” state Democratic executive director Kim Warkentin told me. Internal Bush campaign polls there show President Bush has a slight edge.

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s charges are leveled in a new book, “Unfit for Command,” which offers eyewitness accounts from more than 60 Swift boat sailors who refute Mr. Kerry’s war stories.

Mr. Kerry and his advisers have, for the most part, stuck to their version of what happened during his four-month Vietnam tour of duty. But the one story on which he has backpedaled is his tale about taking his gunboat into Cambodia in 1968.

In a Senate floor speech on March 27, 1986, Mr. Kerry said:

“Mr. President, I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia … I have that memory which is seared — seared — in me.”

Mr. Kerry was suggesting he was ordered into Cambodia illegally by the Nixon administration. He repeated the story in a Boston Herald interview, saying: “The absurdity of almost being killed by our own allies in a country in which President Nixon claimed there were no American troops was very real.”

But Nixon was not yet president in December 1968. Moreover, “Unfit For Command” flatly states “all of the living commanders in Kerry’s chain of command deny that Kerry was ever ordered to Cambodia,” and three of the five crewmen on his boat “deny that they or their boat were ever in Cambodia.” Finally, if this was seared into Kerry’s memory, why was there no mention of it in Douglas Brinkley’s book about Mr. Kerry’s exploits, “Tour of Duty”?

Kerry campaign officials have since backtracked on his oft-told story. “He has since corrected the record to say it was someplace on a river near Cambodia. … My understanding is that he is not certain about that date,” Kerry adviser Jeh Johnson said in a Fox News interview on Aug. 11.

Mr. Kerry has a reputation for embellishing or making up stories, according to the Boston Globe, which has closely tracked his career. For years he happily promoted what he suggested were his Irish roots until the Globe found out his Central European ancestors were Jewish.

He also has a troubling habit of saying one thing, then turning around and taking a very different position to fit the political circumstances when it suits him.

The most recent example of this last week, when he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars he opposed Mr. Bush’s plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Europe and South Korea and claimed it would endanger our national security. But he took the exact opposite position on Aug. 1 in a TV interview in which he said he welcomed the idea of bringing a “significant” number of our troops home from Western Europe and South Korea.

The abrupt reversal disturbed some of his supporters. “What Kerry should have said was not to object to the substance of Bush’s proposal, but to say, yes, he has some good ideas and we need to think them through,” said Brookings Institution national security analyst Michael O’Hanlon, a Kerry backer.

With Mr. Kerry defensively backing away from one of his major Vietnam War stories and switching positions on national security issues from week to week, it is no surprise Democrats are getting jittery about his campaign. “There’s a lot of nervousness about how close it is, a lot of nervousness,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer told me.

I’ll bet there is.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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