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It's Not All Fair Game

August 06, 2004

The GOP's war against Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry's Vietnam record has a history. It began in 1971 when the Nixon administration tapped another Vietnam veteran, John E. O'Neill, to form an organization called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace to discredit Kerry, then a freshly minted antiwar protester. Now a new group, called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which has O'Neill on its steering committee as well as other members with ties to the Republican Party, is rolling out a $500,000 ad campaign in swing states Wisconsin, Ohio and West Virginia to attack the Massachusetts senator's war record.

The GOP has no monopoly on deceptive tactics. But the smear campaign against Kerry relies on highly dubious accusations to sow doubts about a well-documented military record.

It's a strategy that has worked in the past. Despite his own murky stint in the National Guard, President Bush did not hesitate to allow GOP operatives to distort Republican Sen. John McCain's Vietnam POW years during the 2000 South Carolina primary by claiming that being a captive wasn't a heroic action, like actively attacking the enemy. At a campaign rally for Bush on Feb. 3, 2000, veteran Tom Burch even declared that "Sen. McCain has abandoned the veterans. He came home and forgot us." This despite McCain's tireless efforts to discover if there were any missing Americans remaining in Vietnam. Then there was the GOP's depiction of then-Georgia Sen. Max Cleland during the 2002 midterm election as soft on terrorism -- not to mention far-right columnist Ann Coulter's preposterous claim that it was Cleland's own fault that he lost three limbs in Vietnam because he mishandled a grenade.

Now Kerry is coming in for similar treatment. For example, a column by the conservative National Review's Byron York raised the question of whether the wound that Kerry suffered in December 1968 was really serious enough to qualify him for his first Purple Heart, which with two other Purple Hearts "allowed" Kerry, as York puts it, to leave Vietnam "before his tour of duty was finished." Doesn't Kerry's bold action in beaching his Swift boat, grabbing his M-16 and directly attacking Viet Cong soldiers firing at him and his mates indicate bravery? Apparently not. The new ad of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth depicts Kerry, like Cleland, as an irresponsible bungler. No evidence supports this, and McCain denounced the ad campaign Thursday.

Eyewitness accounts of Kerry's actions show that he acted with decisiveness and, yes, courage. Sure, Kerry evokes his Vietnam service with metronomic regularity and skates over his later opposition to the war. His denunciation of the Vietnam War in 1971 Senate testimony and his antiwar activities are fair game for his opponents. So are his dovish Senate foreign policy stands. But his war record is not.

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