Jewish World Review August 3, 2004 / 16 Menachem-Av, 5764
A time-traveler from 1972 would not recognize the Democratic party today. The party that once opposed the war in Vietnam is now wallowing in it. The party that once spent its time championing abortion rights, gun control, and affirmative action just spent an entire nominating convention barely mentioning these issues.
Why? Because the Democrats believe they can win with John Kerry and winning with John Kerry means winning with Vietnam. No image, no theme, no message has shaped his campaign as much as the war that deeply divided this nation more than three decades ago.
Vietnam defines both Kerry, the man, and Kerry, the campaigner. He believes it shows his values (he volunteered while others ducked or dodged), it shows his leadership (he commanded troops in battle), it shows his compassion (he saved a life or two), it shows his toughness (he took a life or two), it shows his moral strength (he had the courage to later oppose the war he fought in), and it shows his vision (he has experienced the horrors of war and will not be quick to commit American troops to combat without a good reason.)
It is, however, also a gamble. Americans are still conflicted over the war. Many would like to forget it, not have it thrown in their faces. And while some Viet vets see Kerry as their champion, others have never forgiven him for giving back his ribbons and criticizing the war while it was being fought.
Yet often last week, the convention seemed a mere excuse to revisit the war. After Kerry landed in Boston last Wednesday afternoon, he left Logan airport by boat and was flanked by his crewmates from PCF-44 and PCF-94, the two swift boats he skippered in the Vietnam war in 1968 and 1969.
And there was no shortage of convention speakers willing to define Kerry by his Vietnam service. Former general and one-time Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark told reporters, "Every decision [Kerry] is going to make concerning national security is going to be formed by his personal experience of hearing the bullets snap overhead and the thump of mortars and seeing the look in people's faces. He sees what war does. He's lived it."
One of Kerry's crewmates, David Alston, gave a speech on the convention's opening night saying, "I stand here before you only because almighty G-d saw our boat safely through those rivers of death and destruction, by giving us a brave, wise, and decisive leader named John Kerry."
Kerry's Vietnam service also conveniently gives Democrats an excuse [as if they needed one] to bash President Bush, whose own service in the Texas Air National Guard during the war years has been questioned.
Even Bill Clinton, who ducked service in Vietnam, highlighted the differences between the Kerry and Bush military records. "During the Vietnam War, many young men, including the current president, the vice president and me, could have gone to Vietnam but didn't," Clinton told the delegates. "John Kerry came from a privileged background and could have avoided it, too. Instead he said, 'Send me.' "
Over and over again, the Democrats emphasized strength, even though historically voters have seen the Republican party as the party of backbone.
Democrats have been so closely associated with social issues instead of strength, in fact, that many political analysts see them as the "Mommy" party and Republicans as the "Daddy" party.
But his Vietnam service helps Kerry look strong and all over the FleetCenter, where the convention took place, were streaming electronic signs that read: "Stronger at Home, Respected Abroad."
And when Kerry began his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention by saluting and saying, "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty," he served notice that the war is going to be very much front and center from now until Election Day.
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