Kerry's opened door

Posted: Aug 02, 2004 12:00 AM

BOSTON -- On the floor of the FleetCenter Thursday night, hours before John Kerry was to deliver his acceptance speech, the talk was about an exciting maneuver planned by the Democratic presidential nominee. Old party hands with excellent connections were told Sen. Kerry would demand that President Bush call Congress back from recess to adopt the independent 9/11 commission's recommendations. It did not happen, and Kerry's decision profoundly affects the campaign ahead.

 No new initiatives were offered by the acceptance speech. Not even a new slogan emerged. Kerry, an experienced party politician for three decades, and his team of experienced political professionals decided to stand pat with their cautious post-primary approach. But in introducing himself to more voters, Kerry emphasized his brief combat experience as a naval officer in Vietnam.

 That decision may foretell brutish combat at least to begin the three-month campaign ahead. Forgoing detailed explanation of his proposals or serious discussion of issues, Kerry is telling non-ideological undecided Americans that he is a better man and, indeed, a better patriot than George W. Bush. By stressing his wartime exploits, however, he has invited unfriendly examination of them that is now well underway.

 Kerry let it be known that he personally had written his speech, and its length and its lack of memorable phrases sounded like it. If he had read at normal speed while pausing for applause, Kerry would have gone 68 minutes. Instead he raced through the full text in 45 minutes, too fast for total comprehension by cheering delegates but just fine for people in their living rooms. The forceful delivery belied the familiar content, which brought together Democratic talking points heard all week at the FleetCenter.

 What made the address a rhetorical success entails a risk. The one departure from his prepared speech was the opening military salute and declaration that "I'm reporting for duty." Ever since the arrival in Iowa last winter of Kerry's wartime shipmates, his four months as a Swift Boat commander in Vietnam have become increasingly important in his campaign while his record as a reflexively liberal-voting senator has dimmed.

 Speech after speech at the convention lauded Kerry's heroism and devotion to duty. In line with a new policy to avoid overt Bush-bashing, the comparison with Bush's stateside Air National Guard service was only implied. The main purpose of waving the flag here was to inoculate him against charges that he is just another weak Massachusetts liberal.

 Almost totally removed from view has been Kerry's introduction to the national spotlight 33 years ago as a Vietnam War dissenter when he led, not followed, fierce antiwar protesters. This led him to his unsuccessful 1972 run for Congress, another ignored event. The Kerry biographical video shown to the nation Thursday night contains a brief image of Kerry as protester, but is blotted out by portraits of his heroism.

 Kerry has opened a door that could prove troublesome for him. Even before his acceptance speech, a conservative "527" organization (funded by soft money) opened an Internet site attacking his war record from two angles: that his 1971 accusations of widespread U.S. war crimes in Vietnam were untrue and that his record of heroism is contradicted by other veterans.

 Until now, Bush campaign strategists have given Kerry a pass on Vietnam. Conceding a record of bravery and ignoring his role in the extreme antiwar movement, Bush attacks -- especially during the convention week -- have concentrated on his Senate record. Since Kerry will not be engaged on the subject, the Republican attacks have been ineffective.

 While the Democratic consensus has been that the nominee hit a home run in his acceptance speech, the enthusiasm of some members of Congress I talked to Friday was tempered by concern over opening the door to a rehash of Vietnam whose only purpose is glorifying the presidential candidate. Had he called for Congress to get to work on the 9/11 report, it would have recalled Harry Truman's 1948 acceptance speech when he electrified morose convention delegates by calling on the Republican-controlled Congress to return on "Turnip Day." The parallel is far from exact, but that approach could have set a different tone for the nominee's campaign.