Monday, August 23, 2004

There is something surreal about the way in which the Vietnam War has become a central preoccupation of a presidential campaign being waged 30 years after it was lost. The reason it has emerged in this fashion is the same as the primary cause of the surrealism: John Kerry is attempting to perpetrate what is a classic “bait-and-switch.”

The Democratic presidential candidate has sought to recast himself, especially during his party’s convention, as GI Joe. Even if one takes at face value his decorated conduct in combat — and, according to The Washington Post, doubts raised lately by a number of fellow Swift Boat veterans about his claimed heroism and the medals he received for it cannot be dismissed — the candidate has assiduously downplayed his post-Vietnam conduct, including two decades in the U.S. Senate.

Now, senators are not generally modest about their service in what has been called “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” In the case of Mr. Kerry’s acceptance speech in Boston, however, he could no more tout his senatorial record than he could his 1971 testimony before that chamber’s Foreign Relations Committee. After all, both his years of consistently voting against robust defense policies, and the weapon systems necessary to implement them, and his virulent denunciation of the military and its chain of command for “war crimes” that preceded it run counter to the image of strength and leadership Mr. Kerry must project to beat a wartime commander-in-chief.

Then, there is Kerry’s claim he was shot at during Christmas in Cambodia in 1968 even as President Nixon denied the presence of American forces there — a “searing” event to which he subsequently attributed the genesis of his anti-war sentiment. The senator’s campaign has been forced to acknowledge that, despite his oft-repeated remembrances of this formative experience, it did not happen. One give-away was the fact that Richard Nixon was not president in December 1968.

Could a man who serially told an untruth about one critical aspect of his military career — including on the Senate floor — be prevaricating as well about other aspects of his service? Before we take the bait, we had better be sure the candidate could not have fabricated after-action and medical treatment reports.

Finally, there is the matter of Mr. Kerry’s seemingly desperate bid over the past few days to suppress his former colleagues’ criticism. First, he asked the Federal Elections Commission to prohibit Swift boat vets from airing ads questioning his performance before and after he left Vietnam.

Such a stance is preposterous insofar as John Kerry has benefited hugely from “outside” expenditures spent on vicious attacks on President Bush by the likes of Michael Moore and On the rare occasion when the senator has disavowed and denounced such “independent” expenditures on his behalf, they (or similar ones) continue to be aimed like saturation bombing campaigns at key voters, especially in the swing states.

With the FEC unlikely to act, Mr. Kerry sought out new character witnesses. The most notable of these is William Rood, a former fellow Swift boat commander and currently an editor with the Chicago Tribune. Mr. Rood has given a peculiar explanation for why now, after 35 years of studied silence on the matter, he decided to write a lengthy column in his paper defending John Kerry.

According to the New York Times, he was inflamed by charges that then-Lt. Kerry did not deserve the Silver Star awarded him for driving his boat into the line of fire from an enemy onshore, beaching it (in violation of orders and Navy procedure) and disembarking singlehandedly to give chase to and kill a Viet Cong. Mr. Rood says, “What matters most to me is that this is hurting crewmen who are not public figures and who deserved to be honored for what they did.”

The truth is that any unwarranted damage being done to the reputations and sensibilities of John Kerry’s former comrades-in-arms by his critics among the Swift Boat veterans scarcely compares to the wholesale sullying of the Democratic candidate’s former colleagues during his now-infamous congressional testimony in 1971. Indeed, it is the profound affront caused by his charges of daily war crimes by Vietnam-era servicemen and their leaders alike that has given rise to the activism and latest ad of his harshest critics.

John Kerry has made his service in Vietnam the leitmotif of the campaign in a conscious effort to obscure other behavior that might disqualify him. If, as his post-Vietnam record suggests, this amounts to a bait-and-switch trap for American voters, it is understandable that he would object to close scrutiny of the bait. His objections, however, should only redouble the critical attention that his behavior during and after Vietnam is given by the press and public alike.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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