It was not supposed to be this way–at least, that’s what Democrats thought. John Kerry was not supposed to be heading into the final stretch of the election defending himself from the charge always thrown at Democrats by Republicans: you’re a wimp and not serious about national security.
George McGovern, a WWII pilot, was derided as a defeatist peacenik by the Nixon goons. Walter Mondale was portrayed as not sufficiently concerned about the Soviet threat by the Reagan Team. Michael Dukakis was mocked by the first Bush squad–especially after Dukakis took a tank ride wearing a helmet that made him look like Mickey Mouse. Bill Clinton was blasted for having been a draft-dodger and an antiwar Soviet symp.
Kerry, the Democrats said, would be invulnerable to this same-old attack. He was a Vietnam war hero who had earned medals for his combat actions. And on top of that, he had come home and courageously opposed a war now widely regarded as a colossal mistake. Yet the Bush campaign and its allies still have managed to define Kerry (for many voters) as a weakling, as a flip-flopper, as a spineless, finger-in-the-wind pol who has voted against military spending and who lacks the fortitude and decisiveness to be commander-in-chief and protect America from its enemies.
The election is far from over, but polls show many more voters believe Bush is strong than those who say the same about Kerry. In these polls, Kerry has a big edge when voters are asked whether the candidates are intelligent, but according to the same surveys, voters think that Bush is better able to manage both the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terrorism. Bush, who used family connections to avoid the draft and then failed to live up to all his National Guard obligations, has positioned himself as the candidate of strength. And Kerry, like many past Democratic candidates, has been placed on the defensive. The Swift Vets hurled unsubstantiated charges at him regarding his Vietnam service and succeeded in raising questions. The Bush campaign and its surrogates have ridiculed Kerry and succeeded in raising questions about his leadership ability.
This was not what Democrats anticipated. A powerful reminder of that is George Butler’s new film, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, which is based on Douglas Brinkley’s book, Tour of Duty, and chronicles Kerry’s Vietnam experience. Butler, who has known Kerry for 40 years, helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reputation with the 1977 documentary, Pumping Iron. He won’t have any such luck with his latest film. It is being released in a highly politicized environment after much debate about Kerry’s Vietnam record has already occurred and after Kerry has taken much incoming.
The film, put together before the Swift Vets created a phony brouhaha, does not respond directly to the evidence-free allegations tossed at Kerry by this GOP-financed band of anti-Kerry vets. And the documentary does lean toward hagiography. But it does convincingly portray Kerry as a decisive, daring, thoughtful, and soulful man. It covers his time as a medal-winning war hero. (“Every day John Kerry made decisions that saved the lives of the crew of that boat,” one of his Swift boat crewmates say. “I would not have had all these extra days. I would be on a wall somewhere.”) It shows that he has contemplated deeply the horror of war and the responsibilities of leadership. In one scene, he poignantly wonders about an unidentified Vietnamese man who lies dead–with no honor, no glory–as Kerry and his comrades inspect a set of buildings where a battle had occurred.