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The Race to the White House

Refighting Vietnam in Battleground States

Florida seems as divided on Kerry controversy and whether it matters as it does on other issues.

August 25, 2004|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

TAMPA, Fla. — Over coffee, the two recent college graduates sat debating the significance of a bitterly contested war that left them deeply divided.

Not Iraq, but Vietnam.

"I don't care about that war," said Rich Clark, 25. "It didn't affect my generation. It's ancient history."

His friend begged to differ. "Vietnam is an analog to what's happening in Iraq, another war America got suckered into and shouldn't be fighting," said Julio Torres, 29. "It couldn't be more important."

In Florida -- a key battleground in this year's presidential election -- and elsewhere in the nation, the campaign's focus has shifted to a tumultuous era of antiwar marches and counter-demonstrations. Three decades after its bitter conclusion, the Vietnam War again is playing a discordant role on the national political stage as debate rages over Sen. John F. Kerry's record in a military conflict waged before Clark and Torres were born.

The dispute prompted Cheryl Koski, 47, a college journalism professor in Tampa, to pose a question echoed by many voters: "Why are we going back and revisiting all this?"

The newest Vietnam debate has ensnared not only voters who are familiar with the period, such as Koski, but a new generation -- many of whom know little about the conflict and the swirling national ill-will it engendered at home and abroad.

While many younger voters dismiss Vietnam as irrelevant -- their father's, or even grandfather's war -- others are hashing over its significance today and whether it should become part of the process in picking the next president.

Among all voters, how those questions are answered could prove crucial to who wins Florida and other closely contested states expected to determine the outcome of November's vote.

Historians suggest that Vietnam continues to plague the national consciousness because it foreshadowed America's present-day international status: mired in an unpopular war that has prompted much of the rest of the world to condemn the United States.

"Vietnam remains such a hot-button issue in part because it doesn't fit into America's heroic, freedom-loving sense of itself," said Peter Kuznick, a historian at American University In Washington.

"It's the most egregious case of us being on the wrong side of history -- the bad guys. And the recent debate over John Kerry's wartime experiences has forced us to relive that contradiction all over again."

A group of Vietnam veterans sparked the current controversy with an advertisement that claimed Kerry, a decorated Navy patrol boat commander in Vietnam, embellished the circumstances that led to him receiving medals, including three Purple Hearts. Kerry disputed the accusations, several former crewmates vouched for his heroism and his presidential campaign noted that some of the group's members previously praised his service record.

The group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, has launched a second ad, asserting that Kerry's antiwar activities after returning from Vietnam disgraced his fellow veterans.

Much of the group's money has come from supporters of President Bush, and Kerry has said it is a front for Bush's reelection campaign. Bush aides deny that charge, but Kerry pressed his case Tuesday.

In a speech in New York, just days before the kickoff of the Republican National Convention there, the Democratic presidential candidate accused Bush of using "fear and smear" to divert attention from his administration's record on jobs, healthcare and other matters.

Bush's service in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam era also has been criticized by some as an effort to avoid going to Vietnam, underscoring the question of what, if anything, either candidate's experience during those years says about their ability to perform as president.

While polls in this closely divided state have yet to answer the question, dozens of interviews throughout the Tampa Bay area show that voters -- from college student to baby boomers to retirees -- are split over what importance to place on Vietnam in the national election drama.

"How long ago was that war?" asked St. Petersburg tree trimmer A.J. Wilkerson, 42. "What a man did 30 years ago has absolutely no bearing on who he is today. He could have been crook or a coward back then, but a changed man today."

Others describe Vietnam as the stage that shows the qualities each candidate brings to the table.

"John Kerry cannot run from the things he did as a young man -- he sold out his fellow soldiers," said Melissa Chapman, 35, whose father fought in Vietnam and whose husband now serves in the Marine Corps.

"I judge a president over his lifetime actions, not just by who he says he is this election cycle," she added. "In that way, Vietnam matters."

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