A man and his medals

Posted: Feb 11, 2004 12:00 AM

"I look forward to that debate when John Kerry, a war hero, with a chest full of medals, is standing next to George Bush, a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard." Those are the words of Terry McAuliffe, Democratic National Committee chairman, non-veteran and political retainer of former President Bill Clinton.

Clinton, you may recall, also was no war hero, no veteran and no recipient of military medals. Yet somehow, Bubba beat two medal-earning war heroes (President George H.W. Bush and former Sen. Bob Dole) in bids for the White House.

McAuliffe's cheap shot, I believe, will come back to haunt him.

As White House spokesman Ken Lisaius noted, "The facts are that the president was honorably discharged for fulfilling his obligations" -- which ought to settle the bogus AWOL charge.

But, no. Now, critics are demanding that Bush prove that 30-odd years ago, he always showed up when

he was supposed to. Also, Bush should prove something that can't be proven -- that he didn't receive special treatment when he was let out of the National Guard early to attend Harvard Business School.

Don't get me wrong. I've enjoyed listening to friends and neighbors in the Bay Area -- people who wouldn't sleep for a year if their kids signed up for ROTC -- voice their indignation at the possibility that Bush might have missed so much as a day in uniform.

It's especially choice when they dismiss Bush's service in the National Guard because he didn't go to Vietnam. Such criticism ignores the risky nature of flying F-102s and the admittedly remote possibility of being sent into combat. The bottom line is that Bush served more than most Californians.

Another Yale grad, Kerry, went further. Kerry was a genuine hero in Vietnam, who risked his life to save others. I disagree with Kerry's take on many issues. I have never found him convincing or compelling. (I keep thinking of the "60 Minutes" interview in which Morley Safer asked a 27-year-old Vietnam War dissenting John Kerry if he wanted to be president, which was the rap on Kerry before he was elected to any office. "Of the United States?" Kerry asked, as if it never occurred to him before. "No.")

But Kerry's actions in Vietnam speak well for his character.

That said, Kerry looks ridiculous lumping Bush's National Guard duty in with other "choices," such as "avoiding the draft" and "going to Canada, going to jail, being a conscientious objector." That wasn't the menu during the eight years Kerry spent in apparent harmony with Clinton's lack of military service.

Oh, I forgot. It's different for Dubya because he sent American troops to Iraq. (This argument is best used by people who don't remember that Clinton sent U.S. troops to the former Yugoslavia and are unaware that Clinton was commander in chief when U.S. planes dropped bombs in foreign lands.)

I never served in the military. Few 49-year-old women have. But I am a veteran of the age when my peers didn't trust men "with a chest full of medals." They feared that military men would be too quick to push for war -- until military service worked to their advantage. Now that Clinton is gone, the left can argue that those who have been awarded medals are less likely to wage war.

But it's not service that dictates how candidates would vote on a war resolution; it's their worldview. Just ask Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Vietnam War hero who has supported Bush's decision to invade Iraq. Come to think of it, Kerry voted for the resolution, too.

In the end, voters will see military service as an important part of the package, one that fits with their take on the candidates' judgment and philosophy. Whom will Americans trust?

If Kerry actually shows up for a political debate wearing war medals, as McAuliffe suggested, the move could backfire -- and not just because it would remind voters that Kerry threw away other people's medals to protest the Vietnam War.

Indeed, the donkeys should beware. McAuliffe can open the veterans-only door when it suits him, but he can't guarantee that the door won't hit his party on the way out.

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