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Thursday, August 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Collin Levey / Times editorial columnist
Specifically, the trouble comes in the form of a band of veterans who served with Kerry during his glory tour in Vietnam and who will publish a book of their own memories of the young skipper called "Unfit for Command" in coming weeks.
As a chronicle and anticipated exposé of the young soldier's actual leadership in the jungles, the book will cast a decidedly less-flattering light on the candidate as soldier. Among the charges are that Kerry exaggerated his injuries and was inept at capturing the respect of his men, who saw him as overweening and ambitious.
With the military nuzzling of the Boston convention receding into the past, the Kerry campaign will come at his former comrades with hell's fury. The soldiers by one count the vast majority of Kerry's boatmates will soon be cast as a bunch of demented old men, out to make a quick buck in the service of partisanship.
For a preview of the talking points, Democrats might be directed to the recent writings of New York Observer columnist Joe Conason in the online diary, Salon. Over the past few months, he has written three pieces on the nefarious connections of the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, remarking, among other things, that the group, classified as a 527 organization, has connections with well-known Republican operatives in Texas.
He calls the Swift Boat Veterans "conservative Republicans embittered over Kerry's later antiwar activism" and describes the group's founder, retired Rear Adm. Roy Hoffmann, as having "gained notoriety in Vietnam as a strutting, cigar-chewing Navy captain... whose obsession with body counts and 'scorekeeping' may have provoked the February 1969 massacre of Vietnamese civilians at Thanh Phong."
Of course, we wouldn't dare to imagine a political bone in the bodies of those swift-boat veterans who have hugged up to Kerry. But picking apart the service of any veteran is always an ugly business: In war, some men will naturally be more impressive than others and that fact of temperament shouldn't denigrate the service by others. If Kerry wasn't the best and the bravest in the service, it should be no disparagement to his participation.
But veterans, broadly speaking, have long been considered a natural constituency of Republicans. And in none of this do we wish to discourage the Democrats from their conversion. It did the heart good to see the party, formerly inclined to bumper-sticker sentiment that looked forward to the day when the military had to "hold a bake sale to buy a bomber," now awash in admirals and generals and other manly men.
The problem isn't a hawkish Democratic Party but a historically dishonest one. As one swift boat commander put it to The Boston Globe, though Kerry was a "great American fighting man," when he returned home, he was equally ambitious to make his mark in the antiwar movement. "I think he was saying whatever he needed to say," the veteran, Michael Bernique, explained.
It's an unhappy impression of unrivaled opportunism that continues to define Kerry now as it did then, and which strikes many voters as the most legitimate and adhesive charge against his qualification to be commander in chief.
The designers and producers of last week's Democratic National Convention in Boston are likely a bit down in the mouth this week following Kerry's post-convention non-bounce. All the klieg lights, hors d'oeuvres and cumulative weight of the biggest hippos in the party added up to a big zilch in the polls. We can speculate why, but there's no doubt the rich mother lode of GOP ads accusing him of being a congenital flip-flopper (a critique pioneered long ago by Kerry's Democratic opponents) has acted as a drag on his ratings.
The fundamental problem with Kerry's campaign is that it presumes the worst thing possible about American elections: that the voters are too dumb to see through the holograms. An alien watching the convention might have reasonably assumed that the Democrats had nominated a 28-year-old for the presidency, so absent was any mention of the candidate's other career in the U.S. Senate.
If Kerry wants the leadership campaign to be about his time in Vietnam, he and his emissaries should be careful about impugning the motives of his veteran detractors. As one of them said, "We didn't lose the war on the ground in Vietnam, we lost it at home, and at home John Kerry was the field general."
E-mail Collin Levey at email@example.com
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