TCS Daily


Swift Retribution

By Duane D. Freese - August 26, 2004 12:00 AM

How did we end up debating the Vietnam war again?

The anger and bitterness heightened by the Swift boat veterans' accusations against Presidential candidate John Kerry and the Democratic reflex to then attack President Bush demonstrates that some wounds don't heal.

So who pulled off the scab of this one? What is really making it bleed? And what does it have to do with the presidency?

Well, who pulled off the scab is pretty simple. Go back to when the topic first came up. It amounted to a one-two punch aimed at President Bush by Democratic Party leaders and supporters.

Anti-Bush filmmaker Michael Moore at a rally for Democratic candidate Wesley Clark back in January called Bush a "deserter" from his Air National Guard Service, and then Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe said that Bush was "AWOL."

They instigated a media reinvestigation of Bush's service in the Guard. It was an easy target because it had been brought up in the 2000 campaign, and 30 year old records lead to all sorts of scattered memories. Nonetheless, the media took the line that Bush, despite his getting an honorable discharge, was obligated to prove his innocence. The fact his fellow guardsmen came to his defense hasn't stopped the Kerry campaign from continuing to try to make an issue of it, both on its web site and in attempting to contrast Kerry's and Bush's service.

Indeed, one might say that Kerry's "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty" salute was not only a way to again wave his own medal-winning service before the public but to resonate with McAuliffe's AWOL and Moore's deserter charge. Good political propaganda -- true or false -- plays upon subtle repetition of previously enunciated themes.

The reverberation, though, included some echoes that that could hardly have been unexpected by Kerry and crew. And that is what is making it bleed.

Some veterans of the Swift boats -- the kind Kerry honorably served aboard and even commanded during his four months of duty in Vietnam -- had long held grievances with him, dating back to when Kerry returned from Nam to join anti-war groups. Particularly upsetting to many of these veterans was Kerry's denigrating their service by talking up atrocities he claimed he witnessed in Vietnam.

The most vocal of Kerry's foes, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, have come out with books and television ads alleging that Kerry won some of his medals with false claims.

As in Bush's case, the military record generally supports Kerry's accounts, although not one particular embellishment he made regarding a Christmas spent in Cambodia. The crew members who served on his Swift boat support him as well.

And this time, the media generally are putting it on the Swift boat vets to prove their claims, rather than on Kerry. That's as it should be.

But that being the case, what is keeping the controversy alive? Again Kerry and crew. Kerry and his followers have gone ballistic. Kerry, in a Cooper Union speech in New York, in which he sounded more like a vice presidential candidate in his attack tone, accused the president of "using fear and smear tactics" to keep from talking about "the issues that matter."

Now, there is no denying that some Republican Party stalwarts support both the Bush campaign and the Swift Boats' folks. It's true, too, that a lawyer for the Bush campaign also did some work for the Swift Boats.

But the hypocricy of the Kerry position is that the same thing is going on for the Democrats. MoveOn.org is one of several 527 organizations started by Democratic Party faithful, such as financier George Soros who contributed $5 million to its founding, to circumvent the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act that limits presidential campaign spending. Lawyers for Kerry's campaign and the Democratic Party have advised those organizations.

Bush's lauding of Kerry's war record and his condemnation of the Swift Boat ads and other ads by 527 organizations didn't satisfy Kerry. Kerry wants him only to condemn the Swift Boat vets, even though Bush, not having served aboard Swift boats with Kerry, has no way to know personally the veracity of what they have to say.

In short, Kerry and crew want to have it both ways. They want their 527s to have free hand to attack Bush in any manner, while Bush is obligated to try and control any 527s that attack Kerry.

The fact is that you can't parse the First Amendment that way. You can't require reining in the rights of some people and not others. In fact, if the First Amendment and freedom of the press mean anything, then these 527s can say whatever they want, just as the editorial pages of a newspaper can.

The fact, though, is that the 527s drain money from the parties and from the campaigns to get their messages out. Supporters give money to them instead of giving more to the parties. And there is no way the parties can really control them. That's the flaw of the McCain-Feingold act. Get money back into the parties and these 527s would shrink.

And as for what service in the Vietnam war has to do with being president, well, nothing.

Go through the history of presidential military service and you'll find it doesn't prove a thing. Being a good soldier doesn't necessarily make for being a good president. Abraham Lincoln, revered by most historians as the greatest president, was actually busted from being captain, and ended as a private, seeing no battle in the Black Hawk War, and few could imagine today his being beaten by Gen. George McClellan who ran on his military record in his campaign against Lincoln in 1864. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose polio prevented service, was a great war time president. Meanwhile, the great generals Ulysses S. Grant and Zachary Taylor were at best mediocrities. Richard M. Nixon served honorably and bravely in the Navy during World War II, and Jimmy Carter afterwards, and both are rated among the 10 worst presidents.

So why are we debating the Vietnam war again? Excuse me, I forgot -- Kerry and the Swift Boat veterans are reliving a tortured time in both theirs and the nation's life. But not doing so in a very enlightening manner.

Author's note: I had a low draft number for the Vietnam War and anticipated entering the military. At my physical, a doctor pulled me aside and told me I'd have to come back for another physical. I had a heart murmur. When I came in for my second physical, as the doctor was listening to my heart, a captain stepped into the room and said: "If there's any doubt, he's out." I found out later that two young recruits had died of heart attacks at Camp LaJuene, N.C. The doctor stamped me 4F. I have nothing but admiration for all who have served in our military, including Sen. Kerry and those Swift boat vets whether they support or oppose him.


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