Loose Canons

The Smell of Fear

John Kerry’s first flip-flop has come back to haunt him.

By 8.30.04

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Does Te-ray-zuh have a dog? If she does -- and it got anywhere near her husband last week -- it must have been growling. Dogs do that when they smell fear, and for the past week Mr. Kerry has fairly reeked of it.

Panic was palpable in the Dems' camp last week. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are omnipresent. On television, radio and in the book Unfit for Command, the Swiftees are attacking Kerry's war record relentlessly, and in a level of detail that Mr. Kerry should be answering in kind, if he had answers. The Swiftees have done what few independent groups ever have: they have gained traction in the polls. The new Time poll shows Mr. Bush in the lead, but more importantly it also shows that about 77% of Americans have heard about the Swiftees' attacks on Kerry, and about 35% think there is substance to them.

Are the anti-Kerry ads fair? Of course they are. John Kerry is really Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve. He had to choose which of his personalities would run for president. He chose Lt. (j.g.) Kerry, locking radical antiwar protester Kerry in the closet along with hyperlib Senator Kerry. Lt. (j.g.) Kerry is being attacked by those who knew him best. It's perfectly fair, but Kerry is shouting "no mas," because his critics are landing some hard punches, and his only answer -- "no one has the right to criticize a combat veteran" -- isn't an answer.

Kerry's fear and desperation were demonstrated by poor old Max Cleland. It was tragedy laced with comedy when the former Georgia senator showed up at the Crawford ranch, begging an audience with the president. Cleland wanted to present a letter demanding that Mr. Bush stop the Swiftees' ad campaign, as if he could. (He can't because the Swiftees, no matter how much Gunga Dan and the rest caterwaul to the contrary, aren't part of the Bush campaign.) Cleland's desperation play managed nothing more than a brief conversation with some bemused staffers, which made his boss look like a whiner.

Kerry -- like every other lib -- can dish it out but he can't take it. American television has been deluged for months by the most venomous of the liberal "527" groups, such as MoveOn.org and their ilk. There wasn't even a "tsk tsk" from Vichy John and his boys when those 527s paid for TV ads that compared George Bush to Adolf Hitler. But now, with the Swiftees' own 527 putting ads on TV, suddenly Kerry wants to stop any of these groups from putting any ads on TV. Well, waaaah!

Vietnam brought out the best and the worst of America, and we've never decided which was which. Many of Kerry's critics call him a waffler, a craven opportunist. They stand ready with a long list of questions on which he took one side and then the other. Kerry's first flip-flop was his most important: the Vietnam War.

Kerry served -- briefly -- as a Swift boat skipper in Vietnam. He neither won nor lost a single skirmish or battle. His service in Vietnam had no significance to the war. But when he came back and became a leader of the radical Vietnam Veterans Against the War, his service in America against the war was very significant. Of the many facts that Kerry can't run away from is that his outrageous allegations against American soldiers -- his 1971 Senate testimony labeling them all war criminals -- was significant to the North Vietnamese and to the U.S. Congress. Kerry's statements, and many like them uttered by Jane Fonda, Ramsey Clark, and others, helped create the political climate that led to America's only defeat in war. Kerry was one of the big reasons that the enemy continued the war in the face of defeat, and that we cut and ran in the face of victory. Kerry served both sides in the Vietnam war. His service to the NVA and the VC was much more significant than his service to his country. For that, the Swiftees and many other Vietnam vets can never forgive him. Neither should we.

Kerry's problems with the vets are growing, not shrinking. The Swiftees, having made their points on Kerry's war record, are now shifting to the post-war Kerry, the radical protester. Other groups are ahead of them. One, Vietnam Veterans for Truth, is rallying in Washington on 12 September under the banner, "Kerry Lied While Brave Men Died" (kerrylied.com). Organizers say there will be 5,000 or more at the rally. It will be the seminal event for the non-Swift boat vets, those who will never forgive or forget that it was they whom Kerry labeled "war criminal" thirty-three Aprils ago.

It would be tempting, with all this good news, to start feeling complacent. Let's not start printing the invitations to Dubya's second inaugural just yet. Mr. Bush's new leads in the polls are so slim, they're mostly within the margin of error. With two more months to go, there's plenty of time for either side to fall apart. In that time, the Swiftees will be rebutted by the movie version of Tour of Duty, the sole purpose of which is to help the Kerry campaign. What will people believe: the testimony of those who knew Kerry best in Vietnam, or a movie based on a book that they discredit? Given the reception Fahrenheit 9-11 has received, it's easy to see why the Kerryites are banking on the movie. Why, then, their tremendous fear?

Because there is more coming. Yes, there will be considerable bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan, aimed as much at Mr. Bush as at the new governments there. Yes, there may be a terrorist attack here. But why, then, the palpable fear in the Dem camp and not among the Republicans?

First, there is the advantage of being able to act to change what happens. Whatever may be coming, known or unknown, Mr. Bush is in a position to preclude it or respond to it. Kerry cannot. Second, Kerry's real fear is the two and a half million Vietnam veterans he libeled in 1971. They are awakening, and becoming active. They -- their families, their friends, their co-workers -- could be the determining factor in this campaign. John Kerry could apologize to them. But he won't.

What has begun all over the nation may really burst onto the political scene on 12 September in Washington, and in other rallies yet to be planned. Mr. Kerry should think long and hard about the Vietnam Veterans whom he spoke so harshly of in the 1971 Senate testimony. That speech began his political career. The vets' memories of that day could end it. He should be afraid. And he is.

TAS Contributing Editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the U.N. and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery Publishing).

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.