When John Kerry appeared at the convention for the MOST IMPORTANT SPEECH OF HIS LIFETIME, he showed how the screw can turn. What was his not-so-secret weapon? Vietnam. For decades, conservatives have used Vietnam the Metaphor to whack Democrats, to argue they are not serious about national defense, to claim they cannot be trusted to safeguard the United States, and even to suggest that Democrats (at least the liberal ones) are blame-America-firsters.
No more. Kerry, the war-hero-turned-war-foe, wore his Vietnam service as a bloody shirt. And he wrapped his entire party in it. Before Kerry said a single word, his swift boat crewmates stood together on the stage. Former Senator Max Cleland, a veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam, called Kerry “an authentic American hero.” Kerry’s daughter, Alexandra, recalled a moment when her father drove her to college ten years ago. While she was brooding away, he remarked that it was a lovely sunny day and said, “I know men your exact age, who thought they had the same future you have. Whose families were never born, who never again walked on American soil. They don’t feel this sun. Ali, if there’s something you don’t like, something that needs to be changed, change it.” Jim Rassmann, the Marine lieutenant whose life Kerry saved in Vietnam, told the crowd, “Nobody asked me to join this campaign. I volunteered.” It was a reference to Kerry’s own decision to volunteer for Vietnam. And in his best speech of the 2004 campaign, retired General Wesley Clark declared, “John Kerry fought a war, and I respect him for that. And he came home to fight a peace, and I respect him for that, too. ” Vietnam–it works both ways. Kerry was a courageous leader in the face of danger. And, as Kerry said in a biographical film, he “felt the government had not been truthful with the American public,” and he challenged that government.
Vietnam is no longer a test of foreign policy machismo. John Kerry has transformed it into a test of character and credibility. The presence of his former crewmates was a reminder of a personal story of heroism. And the previous night’s endorsement of Kerry by a slew of retired generals and admirals–who directly or indirectly accuse the current president of misleading the nation regarding the Iraq war–tied Bush historically to a previous war that was predicated on lies and ended badly. All this puts George W. Bush–the onetime missing-in-nonaction Guardsman who has used falsehoods to steer the United States into a poorly-planned war–on the short end of the stick. What-ifs hardly matter in political warfare. But imagine for a moment that George W. Bush spent a single day in Vietnam (perhaps even suffering a hangnail). Then the last night of the Democratic convention–and much of the previous evenings–would have been impossible.
The setup for Kerry’s address was Vietnam, Vietnam and Vietnam. When broadcast network coverage began–the hour in which millions of Americans, as the pundits had proclaimed, would receive their best look at Kerry–there on the TV screen was Max Cleland. And Kerry’s fellow crewmates were nearby. These were men he served with, men he had saved, men who had seen him kill the enemy. It was over thirty years ago. But post 9/11, all the Vietnam references mattered. As Rassmann said, “in a tight situation…your whole life depends on the decisions of one man.” He was referring to when he had been thrown into a river and Kerry had bravely rescued him. But he was also speaking about the “tight situation” currently faced by the nation.