This Is the First Campaign Kerry Has Run on His Military Record

Roundup: Media's Take

Maria L. La Ganga and Matea Gold, in the LAT (Aug. 22, 2004):

... This is the first time in his lengthy political career that the Massachusetts senator has made his military record a central theme.

Kerry "learned that the use of his military service was a double-edged sword. Most of the time he tempered it," said University of Massachusetts political scientist Lou DiNatale. "I don't think Kerry's record as a veteran would in any way be at the front end of this campaign if we weren't in Iraq."

Kerry began his political career by seeking an open congressional seat in Massachusetts' 5th District. The district's population centers were filled with conservative neighborhoods where many residents looked unkindly on the 28-year-old candidate who had been tagged a carpetbagger.

His combat medals should have appealed to voters in these neighborhoods. But he focused on his opposition to the war in Vietnam because he was passionate about the issue and thought he brought a persuasive voice to the national discussion.

As the election neared, a local newspaper, the Lowell Sun, ran editorials that questioned Kerry's patriotism and his fitness for office because of his protest activities. Kerry and his campaign did little to respond.

"We never really overtly talked about John being a hero in Vietnam," said Dan Payne, a longtime Kerry political aide. "We just assumed that people probably knew it.... We clearly missed the boat on that."

After losing the race, Kerry became a prosecutor and then a private attorney. When he emerged from self-imposed political exile to run for lieutenant governor in 1982, he wouldn't even allow a picture of him in uniform to be used in campaign literature and shied away from mention of his status as a veteran, Payne said.

"He didn't want to go back to it again," Payne said, referring to Kerry's war record. "He hadn't worked it out in his own mind whether it was a net plus or minus."

Kerry won the race and then two years later sought an open Senate seat. The main issue during the Democratic primary between two liberal candidates squaring off in a liberal state was the depth of their support for a freeze on nuclear weapon production.

But Kerry did poll voters to see if they knew which of the primary candidates was a veteran; they did not. So he ran an ad that showed him walking along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and talking about "not sending another generation off to die for a misguided war," said Payne. It was a careful effort to meld both sides of his Vietnam experience.

His main opponent, then-Rep. James Shannon accused Kerry of flip-flopping because he had chosen to fight in the war and then had come home and protested against it. At a debate two days later, Kerry said Shannon's remarks tarnished the reputations of every soldier who fought, and demanded an apology.

"John, you know that dog won't hunt," Shannon replied. "I don't owe anybody an apology."

And so the Dog Hunters -- a group of veterans who have supported Kerry throughout his political career -- were born.

"They coalesced and came together overnight," said John Hurley, national director of Veterans for Kerry. "Suddenly, they were fully engaged in the campaign, called their own press conferences, went to newspapers and editorial boards, went to [Shannon] events."

Before the Dog Hunters came together, Kerry had been down in the polls by 10 percentage points, Hurley said. He beat Shannon by 3 points and went on to win the general election easily.

Kerry's war record wasn't an issue in his reelection campaign in 1990. And during his reelection bid in 1996, his Republican opponent, then-Gov. Bill Weld, went out of his way to praise Kerry for his service.

But a Boston Globe reporter who was a Vietnam veteran, David Warsh, wrote several columns critical of Kerry, including one that questioned the actions that led to Kerry's Silver Star.

On Feb. 28, 1969, Kerry was in charge of a small flotilla of Swift boats when they were ambushed. Kerry ordered the boats to charge the enemy positions on the shore. When his boat beached, an enemy soldier sprang up some 10 feet away and ran.

"Without hesitation, Lieutenant (junior grade) KERRY leaped ashore, pursued the man behind a hootch and killed him, capturing a B-40 rocket launcher with a round in the chamber," reads the Silver Star citation, which goes on to praise Kerry's "devotion to duty, courage under fire, outstanding leadership and exemplary professionalism."

Nine days before the election, Warsh questioned whether Kerry's shooting of the fleeing enemy soldier constituted "a war crime nevertheless, and hardly the basis for a Silver Star."

From that moment on, recalls Thomas Vallely, a former Marine and longtime Kerry friend, "Bill Weld might as well not have been in the race."

Kerry called a news conference to renounce the charge. With him in Boston was retired Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., who said the column was "such a terrible insult, such an absolutely outrageous interpretation of the facts, that I felt it was important to be here."

Also at his side, to stand up for his leadership and courage under fire, were two of Kerry's immediate commanders during his time in Vietnam, former Navy Lt. Cmdr. George Elliott and Area Commander Adrian Lonsdale. Kerry won the race and later credited the Vietnam brass for helping him pull it off.

Today, Elliott and Lonsdale have joined Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; both appeared in group's first ad, which attacked Kerry's military record and his leadership.

Kerry's aides acknowledge privately that they were caught off guard by the attention the Swift boat group has garnered, especially since the accusations by some of its members contradict previous accounts they have given of Kerry's Vietnam record.

But historians say the group effectively tapped into the anger among many veterans about Kerry's war protests.

"It's always been a problem for some people to come to grips with -- they take his antiwar activity as a personal aspersion on their service," said Neil Sheehan, who has written several books about Vietnam, including the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Bright Shining Lie."...

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