Sunday, February 15, 2004

If you own a computer or listen to talk-radio or read the British or Australian papers, you’ll know John Kerry is currently beset by rumors of interns. By the time you read this, it may be that America’s genteel broadsheets and network news shows will have overcome their squeamishness and tiptoed gingerly down the path blazed by Drudge and Fleet Street. Or maybe they’ll decide to investigate it a bit longer, just to get chapter and verse nailed down, which means you may not get to read about it till, oh, midway through President Kerry’s second term.

Now let me say I’ve no idea whether there’s anything to the alleged intern business but … as Howard Dean says when he wants to air some conspiracy theory about President Bush, it’s an “interesting” story.

And, if you think we should have concrete proof before we bring it up, then to paraphrase Wes Clark comment on whether Mr. Bush was a “deserter,” I’ve no proof Mr. Kerry isn’t an adulterer.

Nonetheless, while I enjoy “the politics of personal destruction” as much as the next chap, I’ve no desire to fight the 2004 election on anything as quaintly anachronistic as an intern scandal. That’s so last millennium.

On the other hand, so is John Kerry droning on about Vietnam at every campaign stop and traveling the country with his own personal VFW detail. This year more than ever, the lazy platitude is true: “This election is about the future.”

Unfortunately, most politicians who say “this election is about the future” haven’t given it a moment’s thought. Say what you like about us right-wing warmongers, but after September 11 we abandoned our long-cherished theories of Realpolitik — find your local strongman and shovel millions of dollars at him — as inadequate, and indeed part of the problem. Sentimental liberal internationalism — everything has to be done through the United Nations, no matter how stinkingly corrupt and ineffectual it is — is just as inadequate to the challenges of the age.

Few are so in need of what Sam Goldwyn called “new cliches” as the Democratic Party. That’s why it has wound up running on the twin planks of where John Kerry was in the late ‘60s and where George W Bush wasn’t in the early ‘70s.

In 2002, the Democrats had no ideas and they ran on biography: In Missouri, Jean Carnahan was the brave widow of the late governor; in Georgia, Max Cleland was a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee; in Minnesota, Walter Mondale was the lion of the ‘84 campaign and a friend of Paul Wellstone. And in all three cases the public shrugged and voted Republican. These are serious times and they demand politicians rise to them.

Yet here we are two years later, and they’re running on biography all over again. But this time their chosen biography is Vietnam, and for many Americans, and especially Boomer Democrats, that’s far more psychologically complicated.

Look at John Kerry’s stump speech: “We band of brothers,” he says, indicating his fellow veterans. “We’re a little older, we’re a little greyer, but we still know how to fight for this country.” Thirty years ago, he came back from Vietnam and denounced his “band of brothers” as a gang of drug-fueled torturers, rapists, and murderers.

These versions are not reconcilable. When he was palling around with Jane Fonda in the ‘70s, he hated the military. It wasn’t just that he opposed the war but that he accused his “band of brothers” of a level of participation in war crimes and civilian atrocities unmatched by the Japanese, the Nazis and the Soviets.

So one John Kerry is a fake. Which is it? Running on biography is lame enough. Running on fake biography is pathetic.

Likewise, Max Cleland, the former Georgia senator turned cable-show hit-man for the Kerry campaign on the Bush National Guard “scandal.” He is untouchable because, as Terry McAuliffe likes to say, he’s a “triple amputee who left three limbs on the battlefield of Vietnam.”

As Ann Coulter pointed out in a merciless but entirely accurate column, it wasn’t on the “battlefield.” It wasn’t in combat. He was working on a radio relay station. He saw a grenade dropped by one of his colleagues and bent down to pick it up. It’s impossible for most of us to imagine what that must be like — to be flown home, with your body shattered, not because of some firefight, but because of a stupid mistake.

Mr. Cleland at last no longer demurs to be passed off as a hero wounded in battle — because that makes him a more valuable mascot to the campaign. Sad.

Next to these deceptions — and self-deceptions — what are Dems hoping to pin on Mr. Bush? Thanks to John Kerry in his Hanoi Jane period, Vietnam was a disaster for America that gave the establishment a wholly irrational fear of almost every ramshackle Third World basket-case on the planet.

Look at what everyone from Arthur Schlesinger to Chris Matthews wrote about the “unconquerable” Afghans only two years ago. That defeatism was the Kerry legacy from the ‘70s: a terrified, Kerrified America. If he wants to fight Campaign 2004 on Vietnam, then, as he would say, bring it on.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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