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Kerry's Calling Card: Vietnam

By Ciro Scotti And it's one, two, three,

What are we fighting for?

Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,

Next stop is Vietnam

--Country Joe and the Fish

For the hippie-dippy, drugged out and drafted, baby-boom generation, the Vietnam War continues to be a defining experience. Thirty years after America's hasty and inglorious exit from Saigon, the Nam is once again a potent issue in a Presidential election.

If you believe the exit polling from the New Hampshire primary and a string of stories and TV reports by the Establishment media, the rekindled candidacy of Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry is all about the perception by pragmatic Democratic voters that he has the best chance of defeating President George W. Bush in November.

THREE YALIES. On the surface, Bush, Kerry -- and for that matter Howard Dean -- seem cut from the same bolt of Brooks Brothers cloth. All three are Eastern patricians (despite Bush's Texas twang and Alamo machismo), born wealthy or at least well-to-do. All three went to tony New England prep schools -- Bush to Andover, Kerry to St. Paul's, and Dean to St. George's. All three graduated from Yale, where Bush (natch) and Kerry were tapped for the elite Skull & Bones society. And despite Bush's wildcatting in the Texas oil fields and Kerry's attempts to get real with working-class constituents in Boston, neither seems quite able to shake a certain to-the-manor-born attitude.

On domestic and social issues, Kerry and Dean belong to the paternal wing of their class (with its upper-crust forbears like Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Nelson Rockefeller). Bush, on the other hand, has stayed true to that bootstrap ethic that always seems so right after a couple of gin and tonics on the porch in Kennebunkport.

On foreign policy, Bush is the wild-eyed radical, throwing off the internationalism of his father that formerly cloaked America's determined dominance of the world -- and that Kerry and Dean mostly embrace. But these are all matters about which well-bred Yalies can disagree.

SAIGON'S MENU. What really sets Kerry apart from Bush and Dean is Vietnam. Kerry went to war. Bush and Dean stayed home. While Lieutenant Kerry of the U.S. Navy was running a gunboat on the Mekong Delta, Lieutenant Bush of the Texas Air National Guard was pulling up for weekend duty in his sports car, and ski bum Dean, rejected from the military because of a back ailment, was testing the slopes of Colorado. Kerry came home a hero who saw the folly of the war and, as a leader of the Vietnam Veterans, worked to end it. Bush and Dean were busy waiting for the bartender to yell "last call."

Vietnam is why Democrats think John Kerry can challenge George Bush. And the senator knows it. The voice that he found in Iowa and New Hampshire rarely stops reminding America that he and his "band of brothers" stood up when their country called.

But while Kerry's words can make the emotions of Vietnam boil up in the hearts of many baby boomers, will they have any resonance with young voters? To them, Saigon is just the name of an Asian restaurant on a take-out menu. War means the battleground of Baghdad, where three, four, and five at a time, their generation -- troops that John Kerry sent off to fight -- is being blown apart by "insurgents" lobbing grenades. Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online

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