Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2004 / 28 Elul, 5764

Jonathan Gurwitz

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As Kerry struts down Vietnam memory lane, let's stop at 1992 | Most Americans outside Massachusetts and beyond the partisan primary process had their introduction to John Kerry on the final night of the Democratic National Convention.

Before Kerry took the stage, his swift boat band of brothers intoned his heroic military service. Before that, a biographical film memorialized Kerry's Vietnam-era duty.

Days earlier, Bill Clinton spoke of his own and George W. Bush's and Dick Cheney's failure to serve in Vietnam. Before him, Jimmy Carter spoke of the essential presidential prerequisite of combat duty, a prerequisite that didn't stop him from supporting Michael Dukakis over George H.W. Bush or Clinton over Bush and Bob Dole.

After all this martial drama, Kerry came to the podium and greeted the American people with a salute and the statement, "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty." It might have been mistaken for political satire, a "Daily Show" parody of Shirley Temple's "The Little Colonel."

Instead it was a calculated political strategy to make Kerry's service in Vietnam the centerpiece of his campaign for president, a strategy meant to demonstrate a single, ineluctable point: Kerry is a war hero, and Bush is unfit to be commander in chief.

There's no surprise in this strategy. Democrats have been trying to malign Bush's Air National Guard service for more than four years. They've engaged in a childish game, calling Bush and his advisers chickenhawks since the decision to send U.S. troops into Afghanistan.

Recently Sen. Tom Harkin, who engaged in his own bout of heroic embellishment during the 1992 Democratic primaries, called Cheney a coward for failing to serve in Vietnam.

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During the Democratic presidential primaries of 1992, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, similarly criticized fellow candidate Bill Clinton for his student deferments.

On Feb. 27, 1992, Kerry took to the Senate floor to lament that "Vietnam has yet again been inserted into the campaign," and that Democrats "should now be refighting the many conflicts of Vietnam in order to win the current political conflict."

That speech deserves to be broadly quoted in light of Kerry's decision, as presidential candidate, to make Vietnam the foundation of his campaign.

"The race for the White House should be about leadership, and leadership requires that one help heal the wounds of Vietnam, not reopen them; that one help identify the positive things that we learned about ourselves and about our nation, not play to the divisions and differences of that crucible of our generation.

"We do not need to divide America over who served and how. I have personally always believed that many served in many different ways.

"While those who served are owed special recognition, that recognition should not come at the expense of others, nor does it require that others be victimized or criticized or said to have settled for a lesser standard."

As with much else in Kerry's political life, in this speech he was temporizing, not speaking some heartfelt truth or advocating some enduring principle. How cynically has only become apparent in the past six months. Just as he was during the primaries when he primped before anti-war Democrats for his vote against funding the war in Iraq, while touting his pro-war support before mainstream audiences. Which is how you end up with such contrived statements as, "I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

For his military service, Kerry deserves our nation's eternal gratitude. Those who would impugn that service are acting beyond the bounds of propriety.

Criticizing what Kerry has done since he returned from Vietnam — from his false testimony about American atrocities and illegal Christmas Eve excursions into Cambodia to his voting record during 20 years in the Senate — is the essence of political debate in a free society.

Kerry has made the Vietnam War his sterling credential for the White House. He has also used it as a bludgeon to silence critics of his postwar actions and statements.

He'll wield it again in the two, upcoming presidential debates. Rather than merely debating Bush, Kerry would perform an invaluable service to the nation by debating his own sensible statements from 1992.

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JWR contributor Jonathan Gurwitz, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, is a co-founder and twice served as Director General of the Future Leaders of the Alliance program at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. In 1986 he was placed on the Foreign Service Register of the U.S. State Department. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2003, Jonathan Gurwitz