After several weeks of fulminating about John Kerry’s war record and the medals he presumably awarded himself, at least some veterans of the Stupid Party eventually got down to the real point about the man who wants to replace George W. Bush in the White House. Amazingly, it was none other than the forgotten Robert Dole—himself something of a war hero from World War II and whose wounds were far more serious than any Mr. Kerry has even claimed to have suffered—who seems to have been the only man in the GOP to grasp that point.
“One day he’s saying that we were shooting civilians, cutting off their ears, cutting off their heads, throwing away his medals or his ribbons,” the once-and-never-again presidential candidate remarked in an interview on CNN’s Late Edition in August. “The next day he’s standing there, ‘I want to be president because I’m a Vietnam veteran.’ Maybe he should apologize to all the other 2.5 million veterans who served. He wasn’t the only one in Vietnam.”
The point of the ugly little business about John Kerry’s war record is not whether he did or did not really do some courageous things in Vietnam or did or did not deserve the medals the Navy gave him. Those who claim he didn’t have not proved their case, despite the bottomless eagerness of the conservative establishment to believe them. Even if the Swift Boat allegations were settled one way or another, it would have little to do with whether the Massachusetts senator should be president. Just as predictable as conservatives’ embrace of the allegations against Mr. Kerry, his supporters leapt to resurrect the still-unsettled questions about President Bush’s own military record (or lack thereof).
Such is the level of presidential politics these days, that this sort of trivia is all the contenders and their surrogates can think of to say about each other. And how can they do otherwise? On the major issues of the day, the two candidates are barely distinguishable. Each one simply grunts the appropriate noises that can be anticipated to rally his own legions and avoids violating any of the ever-multiplying constraints on what can be said publicly. Those constraints apparently do not extend to prohibiting the insinuation of the most vicious charges about each other’s characters.
Nevertheless, the ethics of smearing your opponent is not the point either. Smears have a long and not especially distinguished history in American politics, reaching back at least as far as Joseph Calender’s lies about Thomas Jefferson and the Hemings woman. More recently, the liberals who spent a good part of the summer whining and whimpering about Republican demagoguery over the Kerry war record are themselves the first to lob whatever vagaries they can concoct about conservative “links” to “racism,” “extremism,” “Nazism,” etc. The current crop is only one generation removed from the one that pioneered the modern art of Smearpolitik by defaming every figure on the American right from Robert A. Taft through Barry Goldwater down to Ronald Reagan and Pat Buchanan. So let’s hear no more sermons from them about “demagoguery.”
What Mr. Dole had to say about the Kerry affair was, at least in the remarks quoted above, distinctly different from smear. It had nothing to do with what may or may not have “really” happened nearly 40 years ago halfway around the planet but with what Mr. Kerry is known to have said and done. After he won his medals, Mr. Kerry came back to this country, made a big splash out of throwing them away, and proceeded to denounce his former comrades, his country, and the war in which it was then involved. Political ads citing his testimony before the U.S. Senate make what he said back then perfectly clear.
“They told the stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads,” he testified, speaking of Vietnam veterans who had publicly claimed they had committed these acts. Apparently, there was never any thought on his part of bringing legal charges or working for an actual investigation of these crimes by the government. Frankly, most who hurled such charges were just interested in grandstanding, for personal or political reasons. I have known dozens of guys who made such claims at the time. Some had actually been in Vietnam, or at least in one military service or another.
Admittedly, Mr. Kerry was a lot younger then, and there is evidence he was by no means as nutty as some of his buddies in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He resigned from it after a substantial section began considering committing a few more atrocities against Americans. But, just as the point is not whether he really deserved his medals, so it is also not that he once said silly things.
The point is that he cannot now believably renounce what he said and did in 1971 concerning his own comrades and his own country and, at the same time, boast of his heroism in the same war and run for president on that record. But that is precisely what he is trying to do. The controversy about the war in Iraq, and Mr. Kerry’s criticisms of it, seems to demand that the Democrats wrap themselves in the mantle of patriotism at least as much as the Republicans always do. In 1971, it was politically convenient for Mr. Kerry to renounce that mantle. Today, it is politically convenient to don it.
And that is what tells us all we need to know about John Kerry. It is as good a reason as any why he should not be president. The real question for voters who agree with that reason is this: Can they come up with a good reason why George W. Bush should be president at all?
This article first appeared in the October 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.