I don't trust anyone that served then protested against that war, while we still had troops deployed in combat.

August 26, 2003
Eyes on the White House, Kerry Keeps Focus on Vietnam

AN ANTONIO, Aug. 25 As he criticized the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq, Senator John Kerry assured thousands of fellow V.F.W. members today that should he become commander in chief, "I won't just bring to that profound responsibility the perspective of sitting in the situation room I'll also bring the perspective of someone who's fought on the front lines."

Next week, when he formally announces his presidential campaign in Charleston, S.C., Mr. Kerry will stand in front of a World War II aircraft carrier that was used in Vietnam and beside crew members from his tour of duty as a patrol boat officer in the Mekong Delta, where he won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.

Wherever Senator Kerry goes these days, he talks about his war record. In doing so, Mr. Kerry is identifying his campaign with his service in Vietnam more closely than others who have run, like Senator John McCain and former Vice President Al Gore. So far, he has skirted the controversies that surrounded that war, which he fought in and then marched against, as he uses it to present himself as a battle-hardened Democrat who can handle the national security challenges that each party believes will be central to next year's election. He is also seeking to show that he can withstand the kinds of attacks that Republicans have successfully made on Democrats in past elections over issues of national security.

Mr. Kerry's advisers say he is still introducing himself to the countless voters who do not remember him from 1971, when he wore his ribbons on his Navy fatigues and testified against the war on television, instantly becoming a national celebrity. They say it is an obvious way for him to reach out to veterans, a large constituency on whose behalf he has worked for many years in the Senate. And they say his constant recitation of his wartime experience is only natural in the world after Sept. 11, where national security has become a threshold issue and where some say the problems and perils of rebuilding Iraq are reminiscent of the quagmire that Vietnam became.

Above all, though, his allies are convinced that Mr. Kerry's wartime record will inoculate him against Republican attacks like those that depicted Michael S. Dukakis, his boss when Mr. Kerry was lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, as weak on national security.

"Karl Rove will dismember every Democratic candidate based on their record of service," Henry G. Cisneros, the former San Antonio mayor and cabinet secretary, said today at a breakfast with Mr. Kerry's local supporters. "He'll say they're not tough enough. They cannot do that to Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts."

Similarly, Chris Lehane, an adviser to the Kerry campaign, said that its Internet traffic had spiked in April after Mr. Kerry defended his right to criticize the Bush administration by saying he had "fought for and bled for" the right to speak out.

"I think Democrats relish and revel in the idea that they all have a candidate who has the military background that John McCain has, who can then take it to Bush that he can directly challenge Bush, Cheney and the rest of the Republican gang who think they have sole and exclusive authority over patriotism."

Yet dwelling on one's war record carries with it potential pitfalls, as Senator McCain himself warned this year. "I think Americans want modesty," he told U.S. News & World Report in March, "and if it appears as if you're trying to use some past accomplishment, particularly one in combat, to further your own political ambitions, it's a little dangerous because the whole reason for your serving in the military is to ensure the safety and future of others and not yourself."

Another Vietnam veteran now in the Senate, Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, echoed that advice. "It's better not to talk too much about your military record," Mr. Hagel said today. "You should probably play that experience down to some extent not run away from it, but don't talk too much about it. The media will draw the comparisons and distinctions anyway."

But former Senator Max Cleland, the Georgia Democrat and wounded Vietnam veteran, argued that the country needed Mr. Kerry's experience. "In an era when we have pretenders who say `Bring them on' and all that stuff, you need a person who understands war," Mr. Cleland said. "John's been there, and he has a few holes in his T-shirt to prove it."

Far from merely immunizing himself to attack, Mr. Kerry appears to be using his own record to highlight the shortcomings of his opponents in the Democratic primary, none of whom saw combat.

In a brief interview today, he stopped short of saying military or wartime service should be a prerequisite for the presidency, offering that a senator like Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, had he run for president, would have been qualified by virtue of his "broad foreign policy experience."

"But," Mr. Kerry added, apparently alluding to his rivals, "measured against people who have no experience, or very little of it, it's important."

He also said that his Vietnam experience was of special relevance in watching the rebuilding effort under way in Iraq: "Carrying a gun in a hostile territory, getting shot at from both sides? You bet it brings a perspective. Trying to distinguish between friend and foe? Knowing the difficulty of winning hearts and minds? That adds a whole other experience."

While Senator McCain's war record was widely known when he made his own presidential bid in 2000, it was not the center of his campaign, said Gary C. Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego. "McCain's strategy, that he was the reformist, was the horse he was riding, it wasn't his Vietnam service," Mr. Jacobson said.

And 2000 was a vastly different context, he added; "if he were running now, we probably would hear more about his war record than we did then."

The difference is Sept. 11, said Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator who also fought in Vietnam, and whose battlefield experience came back to haunt him when accusations arose that his team of Navy Seals knowingly killed civilians in a 1969 raid in Vietnam.

"Democrats understand that unlike in '96 or 2000 or even in '92, one of the things Americans are looking at is how well can you do the job of commander in chief," Mr. Kerrey said today from New York. "It's become a part of the assessment process. It wasn't there before. I think Bill Clinton would've faced a much different opponent in George Bush in 1992 if the U.S. had been attacked by terrorists even in the fall of '89. He would've had to prove he could be a better commander in chief."

An open question is just how Mr. Kerry's role in opposing the war will play, more than three decades later. Though Senator Kerry says he is confident that "most people have come to the conclusion that the war was a mistake," he said the attention to the protest movement could rekindle a debate that has never entirely died out.

"But he's got credibility on both sides of the argument," Mr. Kerrey said, for having fought despite his opposing the war.

It is also possible that that seemingly contradictory stance might be used against Senator Kerry, if only to foreshadow a recurring criticism of him as a senator: that he likes to straddle both sides of an issue.

But Douglas Brinkley, the historian and author of a forthcoming biography of Senator Kerry, said Republicans would be unwise to attack him on that ground. "As soon as you're arguing about John Kerry's war record, you're on his turf," Mr. Brinkley said.

"When you get into the Kerry story, the fact that they were sending 50-foot aluminum boats up canals along the Cambodian border to get shot at, it's very similar to Iraq, where every other day, somebody gets picked off," he said. "Clearly we were the invader in a very foreign culture, and we had no real exit strategy except Vietnamization. If our exit strategy from Iraq is Iraqization here, Kerry, who knows what it's like to be shot up in a war that Americans forgot about, is a pretty good messenger to talk about the arrogance of power."