Saturday, January 31, 2004

Patriot Games

Bush strategists may feel tempted to attack John Kerry’s opposition to Vietnam. Why it’s a battle they can’t win

By Eleanor Clift - Newsweek
Jan. 30, 2004

The voters don't want to refight the Vietnam war, but with John Kerry looking like the likely nominee, Vietnam returns to the front pages. Kerry is accompanied on the campaign trail by the men he served with in the Mekong Delta. "I know a little something about aircraft carriers for real," he says, in an allusion to President George W. Bush's premature "Mission Accomplished" landing last spring on the USS Abraham Lincoln.

There is another chapter to Kerry's war history that Republicans are examining, and that is his leadership in 1971 of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Some GOP strategists envision television ads linking Kerry with Jane Fonda in order to undermine his credentials as a decorated war veteran.

Highlighting Kerry's antiwar activism is a risky strategy for the Republicans. To quote Kerry, who quotes the president: "Bring it on." If the election turns into a debate over war records, Bush can't win...

In fairness, Bush has been candid about why he enlisted in the Air National Guard. Like many young men of his generation, he wanted to avoid Vietnam. He told one reporter, "I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes."

He has not been candid about his absences from the Guard. After the Boston Globe story broke in 2000, Bush said through a spokesman that he has "some recollection" of attending drills during the time period in question, but conceded that he was not consistent. Records unearthed by the Globe showed that Bush was removed from flight status in August 1972 for failing to take his annual flight physical. Bush aides said he didn't take the physical because his personal physician was in Houston, and he was in Alabama working on a political campaign. But that explanation didn't hold up because flight physicals must be administered by certified Air Force flight surgeons, and Bush easily could have found one at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., where he was living.

Kerry's candidacy was elevated when a former Green Beret whose life he saved showed up on the campaign trail in Iowa to attest to Kerry's courage. In addition, former Georgia senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam and was defeated in 2002 after GOP attacks on his patriotism, appears regularly with Kerry. Bush can't match that. If he's smart, he won't try.



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