More importantly, who brought up Kerry's military record in the first place? If Kerry had not made his Vietnam service the very centerpiece of his campaign -- ``I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty" -- this attack on his record could more justly be deemed scurrilous mud-raking. But if you run as a war hero, your claims of heroism are fair game.
These vets have the perfect right to publish their book and do their ad. But are they right? Did Kerry rescue Jim Rassmann under fire, as Rassmann recalls, or in perfect calm, as a vet on a nearby Swift boat recalls? We don't know. We can never know. I have no doubt of the sincerity of both recollections, but in the fog of war, as anyone who has read any military history knows, there are wildly varying recollections of what actually happens at the front.
Politically, though, I think the whole Swift boat campaign is not very smart. It focuses attention on Kerry's one strong point. The man has nothing to say about his next 30 years. His own emphasis on his Vietnam days is a brilliant distraction from his mediocre Senate career and his unbroken string of misjudgments about the national security requirements of the United States: supporting the idiotic nuclear freeze, opposing crucial Pershing II deployments in Europe, opposing support for the Nicaraguan anti-communist insurgency, voting against the first Gulf War, trying to cut post-Cold War intelligence funding. The list is long.
The Swift boat campaign will not affect swing voters. People will believe what they believe about Kerry at war based on what they previously thought about Kerry. But by drawing attention to Kerry's service, the anti-Kerry vets are playing precisely into his strong suit. If the issue becomes which of the two candidates went to the front in the Vietnam War, Kerry wins.
I think that in deciding who is the better leader for the country today, the issue is an irrelevance and the argument a distraction. No matter. Under the law, George Bush cannot tell the Swift boat vets to stop even if he wanted to. That's campaign finance reform -- the panacea that took the money out of politics, remember?
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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