JOHN MCCAIN WARNED John Kerry, a fellow Vietnam vet, not to emphasize the Vietnam war in his presidential campaign. No good would come of it. It would only reopen old wounds. Kerry ignored McCain's advice. The Democratic convention made Kerry's Vietnam record the focus of his candidacy. To know the real Kerry, vice presidential running mate John Edwards said, "just ask the men who served with him in Vietnam." Now dozens of ex-Navy men who did serve alongside Kerry, calling themselves Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, have challenged his account of his months in Vietnam. It has ignited a furious debate and distracted Kerry from his campaign plan.
McCain, it turns out, was right. No good has come from Kerry's invoking Vietnam, at least not for Kerry. And as the issue lingers, it gets worse for him.
At first Kerry's Vietnam strategy worked. In Iowa last January, a former Special Forces soldier, Jim Rassmann, whom Kerry had rescued from a river in Vietnam in 1969, showed up unannounced for an emotional reunion two days before the caucuses. Kerry won the caucuses and wrapped up the Democratic nomination six weeks later. In May, when the boat commanders who questioned Kerry's war record held a press conference in Washington, they got scant media coverage. Kerry continued to surround himself at campaign stops with crewmates from his Navy boats in Vietnam. At the convention, nearly every speaker lauded his Vietnam service and mentioned his medals.
No doubt Vietnam made sense as a political tactic. In 20 years as a U.S. senator, Kerry had amassed a record on military and intelligence matters that might make George McGovern blush. In the midst of a war on terror, this was a liability. Vietnam was the answer, a way to immunize Kerry from charges that he is too soft on national security to be president. The Kerry equation was simple. He had defended America in Vietnam and he would defend America as president. By the end of the convention, he was to be fully inoculated and could turn to bashing President Bush on the economy, education, and other issues.
But Vietnam came back to bite him. Unfit for Command, a book accusing Kerry of distorting his Vietnam record, attracted national attention, mostly on talk radio and Internet blogs, when it was published in early August. Kerry initially disregarded the book and a TV ad in which the Swift boat commanders attacked Kerry's war record. Then he changed his tactic, elevating Vietnam and making it a front-page story by denouncing both the book and the ad as a "smear." But since Kerry labels almost all criticism of himself as a smear, this response had little effect. At this point, the Kerry campaign lost any chance of controlling the controversy and succeeded only at prolonging it.
Kerry claimed that President Bush was behind the ad and said the president should demand the spot be taken off the air. But Kerry had no serious evidence to buttress his claim. Bush declined to denounce the Swift Boat ad, but explained he wished all independent ads attacking presidential candidates would cease and desist. This meant millions of dollars in ads zinging Bush by left-wing groups. Bush's move left Kerry in a bind. The ads are an indispensable adjunct to Kerry's campaign, fully legal of course. But even if Kerry wanted to stop them, which he doesn't, he hasn't the authority, just as Bush hasn't the authority to stifle the Swift Boat ads.
The Kerry campaign effectively disputed some Vietnam allegations, but not others. In struggling to validate Kerry's claim that he spent Christmas Eve 1968 in Cambodia, his aides confused the geography of Vietnam and conflated Kerry's two separate assignments there. Later, they gave up, conceding Kerry probably wasn't in Cambodia in 1968. Also, at McCain's insistence, they removed an anti-Bush ad with a clip of McCain confronting Bush in 2000. Then they tried a stunt, dispatching former Democratic senator Max Cleland of Georgia, a triple amputee veteran of Vietnam, to Texas to give Bush a letter calling for him to stop the Swift Boat ads.
Used to a sympathetic media, the Kerry campaign miscalculated how the press would react. They should have known reporters love to unmask stunts. "Can you explain what the genesis of this trip was?" one reporter asked Cleland. "Because yesterday, Senator Kerry...said, let's move on. Let's discuss the issues of this campaign. And now you fly down here and draw further attention to the Swift Boat ads, further attention to the controversy. What does the Kerry campaign want? Does it want us to focus on the Swift Boat ads or does it want us to focus on the issues?" Cleland was confounded. He responded with an attack on Bush.
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.