Vietnam has become both touchstone and turbocharger for the soaring candidacy of Democrat John Kerry. At town meetings and visits to VFW halls, the Massachusetts Senator often appears with fellow vets in tow, such as former Georgia Senator Max Cleland and a few graying comrades with whom he prowled the Mekong Delta in a Navy patrol boat. As Kerry pays homage to "the guys who came home with a few holes in their T-shirts," his events turn into an emotional Band of Brothers tableau.
Partly heartfelt and partly stagecraft, they have helped humanize Kerry, a starchy Boston Brahmin -- while signaling to Democrats that the party may have found a candidate who can take the national security fight to the Republicans.
But Kerry, who came home with a Silver Star, can only glide so far on Vietnam service. Now a backlash is beginning, triggered by his role as a leader of the Seventies peace movement and a 19-year Senate career in which he frequently voted against key weapons systems and intelligence funding. On veterans' Internet forums and in chat rooms, vets who consider Kerry little more than a highly decorated pacifist are starting to send up some flak.
Retired Rear Admiral George R. Worthington, who served with the Navy SEALS, calls Kerry's celebrated ribbon-tossing stunt in 1971 a breach of trust. "It didn't help for him to be making foreign policy when other guys were in combat or the Hanoi Hilton," says Worthington. "He voted against nearly every weapons increase when he was in the Senate."
For now, Kerry is ignoring the sniping, some of which seems inspired by GOP operatives. The criticism from vets comes from "fringe elements," insists John Hurley, who directs veterans' outreach for Kerry. "I don't think they represent mainstream veterans."
Meantime, the Senator and his surrogates keep hammering President George W. Bush for rushing to war in Iraq and surrounding himself with civilian Chicken Hawks who are cavalier about the use of military force. "I know something about aircraft carriers for real," Kerry thunders, a reference to Bush's ill-conceived star turn aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.
Still, with a veterans' backlash building and an aggressive Bush reelection team swinging into action, Kerry's free ride is over. From here on, Republicans will seek to shift the focus from his heroism to his institutional liberalism and a record that often seemed antimilitary.
Kerry's votes against nuclear weapons, tactical missiles, and the M1 Abrams tank will be fair game. He was a leader of the Eighties nuclear freeze movement and after the Cold War sought to transfer a huge slug of Pentagon money to domestic programs. He also voted against giving the first President Bush authority to go to war against Iraq in 1991, supported Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2002, then decided not to back Bush II on an $87 billion appropriation for troops, materiel, and rebuilding. Kerry's explanations for all of this are tortured and largely unconvincing.
So far, Kerry has brilliantly avoided questions about his record by playing up his "been there and bled" history. "[But] it's one thing to say that his war record sets him apart in the Democratic primaries," says Duke University political scientist Peter D. Feaver. "It's another to say this is the trump card that carries the election." Sure, John Kerry is drawing a lot of backers now -- but where were they back in the bleak days of December? Early Kerryistas want to make sure no one overlooks their loyalty or confuses them with the newbies. At a Feb. 5 Manhattan gathering of Kerry's national finance committee, campaign veterans sported "4JKBFIA" buttons: "For John Kerry Before Iowa." The gumshoes and the techie regulators have kissed and made up -- at least for now. The FBI's insistence that Internet phone services be required to build wiretapping capability into their systems -- so Net phones don't become a private line for crooks and terrorists -- threatened to hold up the Federal Communications Commission's debate over new rules for the spreading technology. Now, the cops have agreed to let the FCC move ahead with general rules, while the G-men file a separate petition for FCC regs on wiretapping. The Pentagon is pouring billions into companies that don't pay their taxes. A General Accounting Office report finds 27,100 Pentagon contractors owe Uncle Sam a combined $3 billion in taxes, mostly payroll levies for Social Security and Medicare. A system to deduct those taxes from contract payments -- projected to collect $100 million a year -- nets less than $1 million. The GAO used confidential IRS data, so it's barred from naming the offending companies.