Back to Vietnam, Again

John Kerry receives the Bronze Star for combat valor for service in Vietnam in an undated photo.

John Kerry receives the Bronze Star for combat valor for service in Vietnam in an undated photo. Senator Kerry's Personal Collection hide caption

itoggle caption Senator Kerry's Personal Collection
George W. Bush, during his Texas Air National Guard service.

George W. Bush, during his Texas Air National Guard service. George Bush Presidential Library and Museum hide caption

itoggle caption George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

This week, the presidential campaign has brought back some bitter memories. We've been watching old scenarios play out in familiar ways. The Bush campaign has not only attacked Sen. John Kerry for his votes on military spending in a new TV ad, but Bush surrogates, including Vice President Dick Cheney and close adviser Karen Hughes, have been on the attack as well.

Did John Kerry throw his medals over the White House fence in protest against the Vietnam War — or did he "pretend" to do so, asked Hughes. Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas, a fomer POW, took to the floor of the House the other day to label Kerry "Hanoi John" because Kerry protested the war after serving in it.

Never mind that Kerry's ambivalence was shared by most Americans by the early '70s. Never mind that the other character in this drama, the young George W. Bush, was living a life he himself describes as "irresponsible" at that time. Never mind that Kerry won those medals while actual bullets were flying around him. And never mind that the calendar says 2004. We've seen this all before.

Cast your mind back to the 2000 campaign, when the governor of Texas took his stumbling campaign for the Republican nomination to South Carolina and took the fight to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, winner of the New Hampshire primary. A Vietnam veteran who spent five years as a POW, McCain was running on his service in the Senate and his reputation for straight talk.

South Carolina, like other Southern states, has a rich representation of veterans. That was thought to be an advantage for McCain, running against Gov. George W. Bush, who had no war record other than a rather cloudy history with the Air National Guard in Texas and Alabama. In Sumter, S.C., at an event aimed at veterans, Bush was introduced by activist John Thomas Burch. Burch said that after McCain came home from Vietnam, instead of helping veterans, he "forgot about us." It was an absurd and untrue statement, as the McCain campaign demonstrated, releasing a long list of the senator's votes and other efforts on behalf of veterans.

Senate colleagues of McCain — from both parties — who had served in Vietnam fired off an irate letter to candidate Bush. Veterans' groups protested, too. But the attack made news, and it worked in other ways, too. It riled the irascible senator, who could not believe his military service was being called into question by a man who had not gone to Vietnam, and it put the McCain campaign off balance for a short but critical time.

When the votes were counted, George W. Bush and John McCain split the veteran vote, and Bush won the primary. The president said at the time that he had no control over what Burch said, but neither man apologized. Burch was subsequently given a job in the Bush administration.

That performance was a tactic —- according to a McCain aide —- that had worked before and may work again. If your opponent has a strength that you don't have —- and the field of debate is not level —- then level it. Create doubt about the other guy's strength. John Kerry's reaction has so far been familiar as well: sputtering disbelief and obvious anger. And again, the attacks have wrong-footed the Kerry campaign for several days.

This time, however, there have been a number of retaliations. A well-funded liberal group called MoveOn.org has produced a TV ad — which has played on Fox stations and some CNN outlets — mockingly comparing the president's military service to Kerry's.

Frank Lautenberg, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, got into the labeling game on the Senate floor — pasting the term "chicken hawk" on the vice president for supporting the Vietnam War but never serving in the military.

As it got hot and heavy on the Senate floor, a Vietnam veteran leaped up to call for a truce. Calling the president's National Guard service and John Kerry's active duty service both honorable, this peacemaker suggested our national leaders stop re-fighting Vietnam and concentrate on what is happening now. It was a man who knows first hand how bitter such campaigning can be. It was John McCain.

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