The Magazine

The Bloody Shirt Is Back

From the August 30, 2004 issue: Did you know John Kerry served in Vietnam?

Aug 30, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 47 • By FRED BARNES
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This tactic is not new. It's called "waving the bloody shirt" and was quite common in presidential campaigns in the post-Civil War years--but not since then. In those days, presidential nominees didn't campaign personally. But Republicans urged people to "vote the way you shot." Presidential expert Al Felzenberg cites another Republican slogan: "Every [dead] Union soldier was downed by a Democrat." In 1868, Ulysses S. Grant's Democratic foe, Horatio Seymour, was accused of southern sympathies. Even when Democrats nominated General Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880, Republicans charged he represented "a Solid South against the soldiers and sailors of the patriotic North."

The Kerry campaign now treats President Bush the way Republicans dealt with Democratic presidential nominee Grover Cleveland in 1884. Republicans pointed out Cleveland hadn't served in the Civil War. At a Kerry campaign press conference last week, Clark characterized the two candidates this way: "One man volunteered to serve his country. He volunteered to go to Vietnam. He volunteered a third time to command a Swift boat in one of the most dangerous activities in the war. The other man scrambled and used his family's influence to get out of hearing a shot fired in anger."

There's a problem in comparing the Kerry and Bush war records. Kerry needs to play up his in an effort to show he would be a tough commander in chief. Meanwhile, Bush's record as a National Guard fighter pilot is not particularly relevant. He has been commander in chief for more than three years, allowing voters to judge him on his actual performance rather than on military records more than three decades old.

The Kerry fixation on his Vietnam record turns out to be more risky than expected. His claims about his war experience have become a matter for scrutiny, though not by the Bush reelection campaign as far as we know. Instead, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has charged Kerry with lying about his record in Vietnam or exaggerating it. The Kerry campaign can't dismiss the group as men who ducked Vietnam duty. The anti-Kerry veterans stayed in Vietnam for full 12-month tours, longer than Kerry did. Many were in the same unit as Kerry. Their criticism of Kerry is over specific incidents that require a specific response. Being forced to defend his war record wasn't part of Kerry's campaign plan.

Is Kerry's strategy working? We'll get an initial reading soon when polls measure whether the attacks by the Swift Boat Veterans, both on Kerry's war record and his antiwar protesting, have had an effect. The real test comes this fall when voters will be paying more attention and Kerry's Senate record on national security will be under discussion. Has Kerry's Vietnam episode inoculated him? Presidential historian Forrest McDonald doesn't think so. "He's grasping at straws," McDonald says. Maybe so.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.