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.
The convention finale was a good night for Kerry. He delivered his speech effectively. He smiled as well as he has ever done in public. He came across as firm, smart, and serious. But this was also a historical moment in the political culture. Kerry and his advisers–including Bob Shrum and John Marttila–have Jujitsued the Vietnam metaphor. Vietnam is now a liability for the Bush-Cheney Republicans, for it undermines (or, at least, neutralizes) their claims to personal toughness and symbolizes what happens when wartime commanders-in-chief do not tell the truth.
For much of the 2004 campaign, Kerry’s references to his Vietnam service seemed overdone. But as his fellow vets came forward to tell the Kerry tale from their perspective–a long process that happened only as a result of much patient work conducted by a few Kerry aides–and as Bush’s war became increasingly regarded as an endeavor predicated on misrepresentations and false assertions, the Kerry campaign’s allusions to Vietnam have become more powerful, culminating with his acceptance speech.
Finally, the Vietnam references seemed fully–and authentically–integrated into Kerry’s pitch, starting with the opening line: “I am John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.” In his speech, he repeatedly returned to the subject of credibility in government. Some examples:
* “We have it in our power to change the world again. But only if we’re true to our ideals–and that starts by telling the truth to the American people. That is my first pledge to you tonight. As President, I will restore trust and credibility to the White House.”
* “I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war. I will have a Vice President who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a Secretary of Defense who will listen to the best advice of our military leaders. And I will appoint an Attorney General who actually upholds the Constitution of the United States.”
* “Now I know there are those who criticize me for seeing complexities–and I do– because some issues just aren’t all that simple. Saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq doesn’t make it so. Saying we can fight a war on the cheap doesn’t make it so. And proclaiming mission accomplished certainly doesn’t make it so.”
Kerry did what is expected for an acceptance speech. He told his life’s story. He praised his wife and his running mate. He assailed his opponents for a variety of sins, such as “kicking kids out of after-school programs and taking cops off our streets, so that Enron can get another tax break” and “denying real prescription drug coverage to seniors, so big drug companies can get another windfall.” He outlined his various policy proposals: enhancing homeland security measures neglected by the Bush administration, rolling back tax cuts for individuals making $200,000 a year, preserving tax cuts for the middle class, expanding health care coverage, investing in new technologies and alternative energy as part of an energy independence initiative (“I want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation–not the Saudi royal family”), supporting stem cell research (“what if we have a president who believes in science?”). He declared his support for abortion rights and noted his passion for the environment. On Iraq, he stated his position simply:
“And on my first day in office, I will send a message to every man and woman in our armed forces: You will never be asked to fight a war without a plan to win the peace. I know what we have to do in Iraq. We need a president who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, reduce the cost to American taxpayers, and reduce the risk to American soldiers. That’s the right way to get the job done and bring our troops home. Here is the reality: that won’t happen until we have a president who restores America’s respect and leadership–so we don’t have to go it alone in the world.”
Kerry had presented all these policy ideas–many of which fall on the progressive side of the fence–previously. There were no new proposals, no new plan for dealing with the mess Bush has created in Iraq. But with this speech, Kerry found an appropriate and compelling way to enlist Vietnam in his campaign against Bush. Kerry signaled he is indeed ready for the brutal political combat to come and that he is up to the fight.
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