Mr. Both Ways

Posted: Sep 05, 2003 12:00 AM

Sen. John Kerry announced his run for the presidency surrounded by no fewer than eight American flags and eight veterans of the Vietnam War. The strains of "Anchors Aweigh" (which The New York Times story rendered as "Anchors Away") welcomed the candidate to the podium. Kerry's website likewise emphasizes the senator's military record. His former crewmate, David Alston, who introduced him, must have used the word "courage" 10 times.

Kerry does deserve credit for his military service. He volunteered for the Navy and earned a number of medals and citations when many of his contemporaries were fleeing to Canada -- though his self-praise in this regard inhibits one's desire to mention it. In his announcement speech, Kerry said: "I used my extra days (i.e. postwar life) to join other veterans to end a war I believed was wrong. I saw courage both in the Vietnam War and in the struggle to stop it." Kerry thus invites us to substitute the word "displayed" for "saw."

Kerry is clearly attempting to be the war candidate and the peace candidate at the same time. He wants maximum mileage from his war service and yet argues, implausibly, that his vote for the resolution giving President Bush authority to wage war in Iraq was not a vote for war. The senator explained to Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press" that his vote was merely to permit the president to threaten war, not to actually wage it. He claims now to be disappointed in Bush's "rush to war." Instead, if he had been president, and the French and Russians had proved recalcitrant, he would have redoubled his efforts for sanctions or something of the kind.

In that case, why vote to authorize force at all? Or was he suggesting that he merely wanted to give President Bush the authority to bluff? How many times can a nation bluff and yet maintain its credibility?

"Half the names on the Vietnam Memorial are there because of pride," Kerry asserted. "Because of a president who refused to admit he was wrong. Pride is no excuse for making enemies overseas." But was the president wrong to overthrow Saddam Hussein? Has pride caused President Bush to make enemies overseas, or were the enemies already there?

Kerry is lapsing into incoherence on the Iraq War because Howard Dean, the unambiguous antiwar candidate, has been surging in early polls and fund raising. But Kerry has a long record of attempting to have things both ways.

Kerry's website notes that he served as "co-founder" of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. One of the other key figures was Al Hubbard, who spelled America with a "k." Kerry participated in one of VVAW's most famous protests, Dewey Canyon III, "a limited incursion into the country of Congress." Members of VVAW marched on Washington wearing tattered fatigues. They circled the Capitol and attempted to gain entry to Arlington National Cemetery. By nightfall, they had settled in front of the White House. While one of their number played taps, veterans -- including Kerry -- stood up one by one to throw the medals they had earned in Vietnam over the White House fence.

Years later, Kerry's medals turned up, framed, on his office wall in Washington, D.C. A reporter asked him if these were the same medals he had so theatrically thrown over the White House fence. Kerry was forced to acknowledge that he had thrown some other sailor's medals and kept his own. Mr. Both Ways. Some days he said America needed to feel ashamed of what it had done in Vietnam. On other days, when other winds were blowing, he claimed to be proud of his service.

How does that make sense? If America did something fundamentally "wrong" in Vietnam, as Kerry again insisted in his announcement speech, can any serviceman look back with pride on his participation? Kerry doesn't appear to have worked this out morally as, say, a Japanese soldier might need to do after World War II. The Japanese could reason: "I did my duty. That's the best I can say of my participation in an aggressive war." But Kerry's Vietnam War changes as his current political needs change. His moral reasoning is as shallow as yesterday's poll.