Fighting the Vietnam war all over again

By Bill Press

It’s not even Labor Day, but we already know what will be the “seminal issue” of this election. No, it’s not health care, education, jobs or the economy. It’s not even the war in Iraq.

It’s John Kerry’s combat record in Vietnam. That is now the No. 1 issue on cable television and rightwing talk radio, the subject of a new book, “Unfit for Command,” and the target of an anti-Kerry commercial sponsored by a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

It is the most vile, despicable brand of politics we’ve ever seen. Bombarded with so many lies, Americans deserve to know the truth. Here it is.

The Charge: In the book and commercial, 13 men who “served with Kerry in Vietnam” assert that Kerry’s war record is a fraud. He faked his injuries. He shot a teenager in the back. He didn’t deserve the Purple Heart, Silver Star or Bronze Star.

The Truth: Not one of the 13 men who claim they “served with” Kerry in Vietnam actually did so. They may have been in Vietnam at the same time, but they did not serve with Kerry or under his command. John O’Neill, co-author of “Unfit for Command,” admits he never even laid eyes on Kerry in Vietnam. All five men still alive who did serve under Kerry now support him for president.

Lt. Commander George Elliott, quoted in the commercial as saying Kerry did not deserve the Silver Star, has since recanted. In 1996, responding to the same charge that Kerry merely ran after an enemy soldier and shot him in the back, Elliott said: “The fact that he chased an armed enemy down is something not to be looked down upon, but it was an act of courage.”

The Accusers: Neither John O’Neill nor Jerome Corsi, co-authors of “Unfit for Command,” is credible. O’Neill is a professional Kerry hater, first recruited by President Nixon in 1971 to discredit Kerry, who was then leading veterans opposed to the war. O’Neill seconded Nixon’s nomination at the Republican convention in 1972 and has orchestrated personal attacks against Kerry in every campaign since.

As political commentator, Corsi frequently spews his hatred on the website FreeRepublic.com – where he has called Sen. Hillary Clinton a “fat hog,” referred to her daughter as “Chubby Chelsea,” called Katie Couric “Little Katie Communist” and expressed the wish that a small plane crash into the set of NBC’s “The West Wing,” killing Martin Sheen. He didn’t even spare the pope. When John Paul II visited the United Nations, Corsi wrote: “Maybe that’s the connection – boy buggering in both Islam and Catholicism is OK with the pope as long as it isn’t reported by the liberal press.”

The Source: The White House denies any connection, but this is clearly part of the extended Bush campaign. For Bush, O’Neill also led the charge to smear Sen. John McCain in 2000. Merrie Spaeth, who produced the SWIFT boat ad, also produced commercials in 2000 accusing McCain of being against clean air. This year’s ads were paid for, in part, by a $100,000 contribution from longtime Bush supporter Bob Perry, a close ally of Karl Rove.

The Motive: Sen. McCain has asked President Bush to condemn the attacks on Kerry’s war record. Bush won’t for one simple reason. Having no combat experience himself, he can’t bear to run against anyone who does — because it makes him look weak by comparison. He destroyed John McCain in 2000. He helped destroy Max Cleland in 2002. And now he’s trying to destroy John Kerry in 2004.

The Result: These attacks will backfire. Americans are sick of the politics of personal destruction. They don’t want to reopen the wounds of the Vietnam War. And any attack on John Kerry’s war record only invites comparison to Bush’s own lack of combat experience.

Compare the two. John Kerry volunteered for the Navy, for Vietnam and for dangerous SWIFT-boat duty. He was awarded three Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star and the Silver Star – while George W. Bush, with his father’s help, ducked the draft by joining the National Guard. Once trained to fly, he had himself taken out of active service to work on a political campaign in Arkansas. He won no medals. His superior officers say they can’t even confirm he showed up for duty.

Which one would you rather be in a foxhole with?