The Magazine

John McCain Was Right

From the September 6, 2004 issue: Kerry should have taken his advice about Vietnam.

Sep 6, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 48 • By FRED BARNES
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Oddly enough, the flap may have brought Bush and McCain closer together. Although McCain had already been campaigning at Bush's side, aides of Bush believe McCain has become more fervent in his support because of his distaste for Kerry's stress on Vietnam. A more cynical view is that McCain, 68, is reconciling with Bush Republicans with an eye to running for president in 2008. In any case, while McCain said Bush should specifically condemn the first Swift Boat ad, the two agreed that all independent ads by so-called 527 groups should be stopped. This put the spotlight on pro-Kerry 527s, which have spent more than $60 million vilifying Bush.

That was not Kerry's biggest Vietnam problem. A second TV spot by the Swift Boat vets criticizes Kerry's antiwar activity after he returned from Vietnam. In a meeting with editors of the Washington Post last week, McCain distinguished between this ad and the first one disputing Kerry's service. It is an important distinction. Kerry's antiwar stance, especially his 1971 Senate testimony accusing American troops of committing war crimes daily in Vietnam, has always been a ripe target. Now McCain has, in effect, given a green light to zeroing in on it. This makes it difficult for Kerry to insist the second ad is over the line. McCain, who was a POW in North Vietnam at the time Kerry was talking about war crimes, believes Kerry's Senate testimony was both wrong and harmful.

Kerry's fixation on Vietnam caught Bush campaign advisers by surprise. They expected him to pound Bush on domestic issues at the convention. They believe he blundered by concentrating on the one thing everyone already knew about him: He's a Vietnam vet. Worse, he turned his advantage on Vietnam into a disadvantage. Kerry has only himself to blame. "I don't think there's any doubt that Senator Kerry made [Vietnam] a very big part of his campaign and therefore legitimized this issue," McCain told the Chicago Tribune. Now he's paying a price for not heeding McCain's advice in the first place.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.