THERE'S NEVER BEEN a presidential campaign like John Kerry's. Never has a presidential nominee made his own experience in a war the centerpiece of his campaign for the White House. In 1960, John F. Kennedy didn't hide his World War II record as commander of PT-109, but he didn't talk it up either. When asked about being a hero, he mocked the idea and said it stemmed from having his boat shot out from under him. John McCain's experience as a POW in Vietnam was well known when he ran for the Republican nomination in 2000. But he rarely mentioned it, except to note that his longest place of residence was Hanoi. Kerry is different. His speeches, TV ads, interviews, the entire Democratic convention--all have dwelled on his four months in Vietnam and the five medals he was awarded.
And there's still another unique aspect. Never has a presidential nominee run on the basis of his role in a war he opposed. Dwight Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and the five ex-Union officers in the Civil War who became president benefited politically from their participation and leadership in a war. Most of them, in fact, were famous for their wartime service. Kerry, by contrast, became famous as a war protester, as the leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who charged that war crimes were being committed by American troops in Vietnam on a daily basis. Now Kerry has stood the Vietnam issue on its head. He insists it's his war record that shows he would be a strong president.
Why is Kerry leaning so heavily on his performance in Vietnam? It's a bulwark against attacks on his weak record on defense and national security as a U.S. senator since 1985. In an era of terrorist attacks, his votes to cut intelligence spending, indeed his overall dovishness, are liabilities. So the theme of nearly every speaker at the Democratic convention in July was that Kerry's Vietnam service, not his Senate record, reflects the kind of president he would be. "I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president," Kerry declared.
The two convention speeches leading up to Kerry's were delivered by Vietnam vets, and during Kerry's speech, a group of his former Swift boat crewmates stood behind him. "I thought I was watching the VFW convention," quipped Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. Former senator Max Cleland, a triple amputee, was quick to tell the delegates that Kerry had earned "a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts." Retired General Wesley Clark talked up Kerry's moments in combat. "John Kerry has heard the thump of enemy mortars," Clark said. "He's seen the flash of the tracers. . . . He proved his physical courage under fire."
Has a candidate's having heard "the thump" of mortars or seen the "flash of tracers" ever before been used as grounds for election? Not in recent memory anyway. Harry Truman was an artillery officer in World War I, but his campaign didn't highlight that in his tough election battle in 1948. "You didn't get Kennedy saying, 'I have served and I have shrapnel in me,'" says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar and professor emeritus at Princeton. "Kennedy was too classy a guy to say that." (A Kerry campaign commercial says Kerry still has shrapnel in his leg.) George Bush senior, running for president in 1988 and 1992, didn't discuss his World War II service in the Pacific. Nor did Eisenhower rely on his war experience. "He didn't have to say 'I know about war,'" says Greenstein. "Everybody knew he knew about war."
Truman, Kennedy, Bush, and Eisenhower stressed other issues. Truman thrashed the "do-nothing Congress." Kennedy deplored a "missile gap" and exuded optimism about America. Bush ran as Ronald Reagan's heir but "kinder and gentler." Eisenhower promised to go to Korea and to clean up the mess in Washington. Kerry, however, "has made his four months of military service a key part, a mantra, a touchstone," says Greenstein. Since 1904, when presidential candidates began active campaigning, Kerry "is probably distinctive in the extent to which he makes reference to it."
That's putting it mildly. Kerry's campaign is also distinctive in the modern political era in using his Vietnam record to shut down criticism. Vice President Dick Cheney zinged Kerry recently for advocating a "more sensitive war on terror." At a rally in Flint, Michigan, Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, accused Cheney of distorting Kerry's words. Then he added this: "He's talking about a man who still carries shrapnel in his body. He's talking about a man who spilled his blood for the United States of America." Democratic senator Tom Harkin went further, calling Cheney a "coward" for not having joined the military or served in Vietnam.
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.