Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 2004 / 16 Elul, 5764

Zev Chafets

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If Kerry can't win over vets, he's in big trouble | The American Legion's national convention is taking place in Nashville. But for John Kerry, appearing before the veterans represents a Houston Moment.

Forty-four years ago, Kerry's idol, John Kennedy, traveled to Houston to convince a gathering of Southern ministers that a Massachusetts Catholic could be President. Today, the new JFK has to convince skeptical Legionnaires that a Massachusetts liberal is fit for the job.

Kerry's reception by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, on Aug. 18, put him on notice; many veterans have not forgiven him for trashing the Vietnam War back in the 1970s. Some walked out of his speech. A few turned their backs in protest. The majority listened politely but responded with only tepid applause.

Since the VFW convention, Kerry has absorbed two weeks of brutal personal attacks by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Their newest ad recalls how Kerry once tossed away his military decorations.

The campaign by the Swifties has made a shambles of the war-hero strategy launched at the Democratic convention. Kerry's Swift boat was supposed to speed through the political waters at full steam. Instead, it is foundering. He has been forced to retract his legendary Christmas-in-Cambodia epiphany, and he's under pressure to release his official military records and Vietnam diaries. Most Vietnam vets don't believe that he lied about his military service, exactly, but they are no longer sure he was telling the whole truth, either.

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What they are sure of is that Kerry once attacked their war as a criminal enterprise and threw away his decorations. "How can the man who renounced his country's symbols now be trusted?" asks the ad.

Sophisticates may scoff, but legionnaires take patriotic symbols very seriously. Yesterday, they gave President Bush a huge ovation simply for proclaiming that the "the flag must be cherished and protected." Actually, this declaration was less innocuous than it sounds. One of the legion's traditional objectives is a constitutional amendment making it illegal to desecrate the flag. Bush supports this. Kerry, for typically convoluted reasons, opposes it.

The American Legion is officially nonpartisan. But in the words of spokesman Joe March, the group is "far from nonpolitical." Roughly 85% of the 4 million members and affiliates vote. Not only that, they vote where it matters. The biggest concentration is in the swing state of Pennsylvania. Legionnaires are also a force in Florida, Ohio and California, a supposedly safe Democratic state now increasingly in play.

Two weeks ago, the legion's outgoing commander, John Brieden, called the controversy over Kerry's war record and anti-war activism a "nonissue." It would be more accurate to say that Kerry's problem with the legion predates the Swiftie attacks. In his 1971 book "The New Soldier," Kerry snidely predicted his generation of vets would not "readily join the American Legion." But they did.

Kerry desperately needs to convince these vets and the millions they represent that he may be a Massachusetts liberal but he no longer holds them, their war and their values in contempt; that he is, in short, patriotic enough (by their definition) to be a wartime President.

Back in 1960, John Kennedy charmed the Baptist preachers of Houston, carried Texas and won the election. The event became a political milestone. If Kerry can make his case, Nashville could go down as a similar iconic moment. If not, Kerry may make a different kind of history - as the first recorded political fatality of Legionnaires' disease.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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