During the Republican National Convention, CNN Headline News gave Kerry backer, retired General Merrill McPeak, a chance to counter Republican criticisms of Kerry’s 20-year Senate record of voting against almost all new weapon systems for the U.S. military. General McPeak dodged the question and instead touted — guess what — Kerry’s service in Vietnam. According to McPeak, people like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who didn’t serve in Vietnam, have no business criticizing the foreign policy credentials of a combat veteran like John Kerry. I guess that means that McPeak and the rest of the Kerry camp believe that only other Vietnam vets have any business criticizing Kerry. No, I guess that’s not quite true, is it?
The Kerry campaign is one giant mass of contradiction — or as Kerry’s supporters like to explain it, Kerry is “complex.” He’s so complex he often doesn’t understand himself, as when he gallantly stated, when the Bush “AWOL” story resurfaced early in the campaign, that he would not make Bush’s Vietnam era National Guard service an issue. That stance didn’t last long. And now, in the wake of what appears to have been a rather successful Republican convention, contrasting his own 4 months of Vietnam combat duty with Bush’s and Cheney’s activities of 35 years ago seems to be Kerry’s prime issue.
At Kerry’s bizarre midnight rally in Springfield, Ohio, after Bush’s RNC acceptance speech, and at subsequent rallies, Kerry complained that Bush and Cheney “attacked my patriotism and fitness to serve.” Now it is true that Bush and Cheney, and other speakers at the Republican convention made the case that Kerry would not be a good choice for president — taking particular aim at his recent history as a serial flip-flopper — but neither Bush nor Cheney were impolite enough to call him “unfit.” And unlike Kerry backers like Ted Kennedy, who has accused Bush of sending Americans to die in war to serve selfish political purposes, or Al Gore who says that Bush “betrayed” the country, or Kerry himself who, though as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded at the end of the Clinton years that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, continually accuses Bush of having “misled the country into war,” no speaker at the RNC questioned Kerry’s patriotism (indeed, many went out of their way to laud Kerry’s patriotism and Vietnam service). Nonetheless, Kerry made the bogus charge, and then went on to call George W. Bush “unfit to serve this nation” and attacked Bush’s National Guard service and Cheney’s use of college draft deferments. This, by the way, is not an example of hypocrisy, but “complexity.”
But this got me to wondering. To use General McPeak’s argument, where does someone who called not just America’s involvement in Vietnam criminal, but also accused American soldiers of routinely committing war crimes, get off criticizing Dick Cheney for avoiding service in Vietnam by going to college? If Kerry’s infamous Senate testimony was true, and his antiwar activism justified, then Dick Cheney’s choice to utilize college deferments was honorable, indeed, heroic. And to use Kerry’s own language, is an officer who says he willingly committed war crimes more fit to serve as Commander-in-Chief than someone who served stateside in the National Guard, burning down nary a village?
Kerry has a 20-year record in the Senate. Yet the only record he wants to talk about is his combat service record — and then only on his terms. Kerry, who has the most liberal voting record of any senator, not only has no achievements that he can showcase from his Senate career, but it is a 20-year span of his public life that he tries to ignore. In a presidential election year in which national security is the number one issue, he has found his Senate record to be an embarrassment. Whenever anyone brings it up, the Kerry campaign does a reenactment of that scene from The Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! I am the great and powerful Kerry! Look at my medals!”
On the one hand, it does appear unseemly, during an election year, to question the legitimacy of a veteran’s medals (as the Swift Boat Vets have done). But on the other hand, it is also unseemly to use four months of combat service as the cornerstone of a presidential campaign. Kerry’s insistence that his Vietnam service is central to his qualifications to be Commander-in-Chief makes criticisms such as those made by the Swift Boat Vets fair game. As a result, among other interesting revelations, we know that Kerry’s Purple Hearts, as evidenced in one case by Kerry’s own chronicle, may not have been deserved. And, of course, we know that the story that Kerry has repeated several times over the years about having been illegally deployed to Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968 is false.
Now regardless of whether or not all of Kerry’s medals were rightly earned or whether he exaggerated some of his experiences, Kerry’s combat service is, as President Bush has repeatedly said, honorable. But four months service in a war 35 years ago does not place anybody’s subsequent policy positions above criticism. Yet Kerry not only expects such immunity, he demands it. His only response to criticism of his Senate voting record is to go ballistic and to lash out with hypocritical venomous personal attacks.
Being President of the United States takes a certain temperament — one that Kerry has not shown. In one of the very good lines from his acceptance speech, Bush stated: “One thing I have learned about the presidency is that whatever shortcomings you have, people are going to notice them — and whatever strengths you have you’re going to need them.” So far in this campaign Kerry has demonstrated some troubling weaknesses, without any counterbalancing strengths. George W. Bush has been subjected to some of the most outrageous personal attacks from supposed responsible members of the Democratic Party over the past few years. His responses have been remarkably (and sometimes to his supporters, frustratingly) diplomatic. He has never lost is cool. Kerry, on the other hand, seems to have great difficulty in controlling himself even when he is attacked in comparatively mild ways — flying off the handle with accusations about imaginary attacks on his patriotism.
Kerry seems intent on portraying himself as a member of one of the many victim groups that have been the life-blood of the Democratic Party over recent decades. We should vote for Kerry because, in addition to serving in Vietnam, the Republicans are being mean to him. He is a victim of a campaign of “Fear and Smear.” Now the essence of smear is a false charge. Since the only false charge being thrown around is the one made by Kerry that Bush and Cheney are questioning his patriotism, I guess Kerry’s claim to victimhood is just another example of his complexity. Hiding behind an old war record while whining unconvincingly about a “smear” is not wise political strategy. Americans, after all, want to elect a leader, not, as the governor of California might put it, a girlie-man. It is quite possible, however, that the Kerry campaign has become so removed from reality that it does not recognize this.