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It's Getting a Bit Dodgy

John Kerry has evaded his Senate record, his plans for the war on terror, and a host of other issues. Will he be able to get out of his Vietnam troubles?

12:00 AM, Aug 25, 2004 • By FRED BARNES
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JOHN KERRY is very good at the political dodge. This consists of raising one issue to avoid talking about another. He's cleverly done this twice in recent weeks. First, he concentrated on his Vietnam war experience in his speech at the Democratic convention to avert discussion of his dovish Senate record on national security. Then this week, he blamed President Bush for attacks on his Vietnam performance to escape from addressing the Swift Boat veterans who were his actual attackers. And he may have to come up with a third dodge to keep from having to explain his 1971 testimony alleging war crimes and atrocities on a daily basis by American forces during the Vietnam war.

The dodge has worked well for Kerry. At the Democratic convention last month, he didn't bother to defend his Senate positions on defense and foreign policy. In his acceptance speech, he devoted only 73 words to his two decades in the Senate. Instead, he surrounded himself with Vietnam veterans and insisted the best window on his leadership as president was that the men who'd served with him in Vietnam were now backing his presidential campaign. The result: little discussion in the media or the political community of his Senate record at the convention and since then.

That may change as early as next week when Republicans gather for their convention in New York City. No doubt Republican speakers will go after Kerry for favoring cuts in intelligence and Pentagon spending, endorsing the nuclear freeze and deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe, opposing the Reagan doctrine of supporting anticommunist guerillas in Nicaragua and elsewhere, and voting against the Iraq war. But Kerry's campaign has a ready-made answer, one it's already used. The campaign's response is that Kerry won medals and was wounded in Vietnam and thus would be a strong commander-in-chief. John Edwards, Kerry's vice presidential running mate, invoked Vietnam last week when Kerry was accused of being soft on terrorism, saying Kerry had shed blood in Vietnam and still has shrapnel in his leg.

That dodge has diverted much of the press from examining the specific charges against Kerry for allegedly fabricating or exaggerating what he did as a Naval officer in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. The charges have come from a group of Swift Boat commanders who served with Kerry. Rather than address the charges, Kerry claimed the Bush-Cheney campaign was behind two attack ads by the boat commanders. And when Kerry demanded that Bush repudiate the ads and call for them to be taken off the air, the story became what Bush would say, not what Kerry had or had not done in Vietnam.

Yet another dodge may be required to let Kerry let slip past a debate on his 1971 antiwar testimony about the Vietnam war. He took a hard left position in that testimony and emphasized atrocities by Americans. So far, his campaign aides have explained that he was a young man, age 27, when he testified and was only repeating what other veterans had claimed at a rump hearing earlier in Detroit. At the time, however, Kerry said he was "representing" those who charged there were daily atrocities. He made no effort to disassociate himself from their claims of killings, decapitations, and other war crimes.

In 2002, Kerry told Washington Post columnist David Broder it would be doubly advantageous that "I fought in Vietnam and I also fought against the Vietnam war." In 2004, Kerry's twin positions have proved to be more complicated than he expected. Dodging discussion about his 1971 testimony may be the most difficult of all. This time, it's his words which are the sole issue, not what someone said about him. So others can't be credibly blamed for quoting him accurately. And Bush can't be blamed for putting the words in Kerry's mouth.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.