Can Kerry counterpunch?
New questions about Vietnam put the candidate against the ropes
There were many telling moments in last week's jousting over what John Kerry did or did not do in Vietnam, but perhaps none more illuminating than this exchange between late-night comic Jon Stewart and Kerry, who was trying to set the record straight, not on CNN or 60 Minutes but on Comedy Central's Daily Show. "So I understand that apparently you were never in Vietnam?" asked host Stewart, tongue firmly in cheek.
"That's what I understand, too," the Democratic presidential nominee shot back. "But I'm trying to find out what happened."
They weren't the only ones confused; many voters wondered how a war fought more than three decades ago came to dominate this year's presidential campaign, even as another war is being waged right now. But that's not all they were wondering. Indeed, the week's unique American version of Kabuki theater had so many subplots that it was hard to keep track. There was the substance of the charges, of course. But there was also the never-ending battle over the Vietnam War itself. Not to mention the debate over how the media fed the controversy. Or the question of whether the new rules for political ads represented reform or regression. Finally, there was the back-and-forth tactical battle between two campaigns vying for the slightest edge in a deadlocked race.
Ad war. The controversy centers on a group of Vietnam vets, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, that has run two TV ads criticizing Kerry. The first ad charges that Kerry lied about the events in Vietnam that earned him medals. The second spot alleges that Kerry dishonored his fellow soldiers after returning home with broad allegations of American atrocities committed in Vietnam (story, Page 38). The group also released a new Internet ad on its website disputing Kerry's contention that he was in Cambodia in 1968 with an account from Steve Gardner, who had been a gunner's mate on Kerry's boat. The group's charges have been amplified by a bestselling book, talk radio, and cable television. It's all been an effort to tarnish Kerry's military record, which he placed front and center in his campaign. The White House has denied a connection to the Swift Boat Vets, but news organizations have reported links between the group and Texas Republicans close to Bush strategist Karl Rove and the Bush family. Last week, the top lawyer for Bush's re-election campaign, Benjamin Ginsberg, resigned from the campaign because he also had been advising the swift boat vets. Major news organizations have found that the group's claims in regard to Kerry's medals lack credence and that much of the veterans' anger is over Kerry's 1971 Senate testimony alleging American atrocities in Vietnam. "In many cases, material offered as proof by these veterans is undercut by official Navy records and by the men's own statements," wrote the New York Times. President Bush told reporters last week that Kerry should be "proud of his record."
But the whole furor was tailor-made for the 24-hour news cycle. So the fog of war became a media fog, and Kerry has apparently been affected. A Los Angeles Times poll released last week showed Bush leading Kerry in its survey for the first time this year, 49 percent to 46 percent. The poll said that although a majority believe Kerry served honorably, he's suffered a slight but steady loss in support on questions about his Vietnam experience, his honesty, and his fitness as a potential commander in chief. "In a sense, Bush has won," says Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker. "Simply by suggesting that there is some doubt about the quality of Kerry's service in Vietnam, people who knew little about him now have second thoughts. It's a smear tactic that worked. And given the closeness of the election, that could be decisive."