With slightly over two months left to go before the US presidential election one would expect that the candidates and their supporters, not to mention the rest of the American nation, would be deeply involved in arguments and debate over the war in Iraq, the terror threat from Al Quaeda, escalating oil prices, the economy, genocide in Sudan,and a host of other problems surrounding health, education and the environment. Not a bit of it. All the fire and heat generated by the campaign these days is centred on what the Democratic challenger John Kerry did or did not do in Vietnam 35 years ago.
Kerry and his advisors have themselves to blame for painting themselves into this pathetically irrelevant corner. No doubt the emphasis on Kerry's military service in Vietnam was an attempt to portray the man as a young hero who put himself in danger to serve his country while George W. Bush used his Daddy's political influence to get himself a safe posting in the National Guard. As far as it goes, this is quite true and the Kerry people would have been wise to leave it at that. Instead they never missed a single opportunity to trumpet the heroism of their man in Vietnam and it was only a matter of time before the Republican attack dogs circled in search of a weak spot.
Not surprisingly, they have found a few discrepancies in the gaps between what Kerry says and what the record actually shows. After all, these events happened a long time ago, before many in the US electorate were born. The main themes are undisputed (Kerry did serve in Vietnam, he was awarded medals for bravery) but the death of a thousand cuts lies in the details.
The people who are making the attacks are not the Bush people themselves. No, that would be too obvious. Much to Kerry's chagrin, his opponents are veterans of the same unit in which he saw service in Vietnam. This is very damaging in the eyes of voters, particularly military veterans who can't help wonder why Kerry's wartime comrades would unite to make TV ads challenging the candidate and advising people not to vote for him.
The questions raised are about Kerry's three Purple Hearts (a medal awarded for getting wounded, a strange concept in other armies)and whether he actually deserved them. This is highly pertinent because Kerry exercised the option of cancelling the remainder of his active service - about 8 months of a year's tour - and returning to the safety of the United States, leaving his less fortunate crewmates behind. Three wound medals entitled him to do so and it would appear he had no hesitation in getting the hell out of Vietnam. That part doesn't look too good. His medals for bravery are also being disputed and so is a comment that he made on the Senate floor to the effect that he had served secretly in Cambodia.
The Kerry people are understandably quite upset at this turn of events. Their great campaign plus shows signs of becoming a dangerous minus. Their reaction so far has been inept and rather whiny - first they tried to get the ads banned by sending legal letters to various TV stations; then they attacked the motives and the character of the veterans who appeared in the ads; just recently they have been appealing to President Bush directly to disavow the ads and have them removed.
Bush was delighted to take the opportunity to condemn all 527s out of hand. A 527 is a privately funded ad, not paid for or endorsed by the official campaign. The Swift Boat ad falls under this category (the Bush people are very careful to deny any connection) but so do nine of the top ten 527 ads which happen to be hostile to Bush. This is not what the Kerry campaign wants to hear at all.
The controversy over these ads is a good example of the low level of discourse in the current campaign. The indignation and incipient panic of the Kerry people in responding to these unwelcome attacks on their candidate's heroic military record (a record which they themselves chose to emphasize)would be rather funny in normal circumstances - after all, people tend to get tired of heroes who keep reminding them of their long-ago moments of glory - were it not for the fact that this largely irrelevant topic has taken over as one of the main issues in the campaign.
The world (and much of America, one suspects) observes this latest nonsense with rueful disbelief - and begins to wonder if this chap Kerry is a bit of a fool.