This coming week, it is now George W. Bush's and his Party's turn to take center stage, relatively unfettered and uninterrupted, and do what John Kerry and his Party did in Boston only a month ago: present their policy vision to the Nation and, in the Republicans' case, explain just why President Bush should be returned to the White House for another four years. In the course of doing so, they will have to- as the Democrats already did (with a few exceptions here and there, as already noted in my Commentaries on the Democrats' Convention)- avoid "going negative" and, instead, offer positive reasons for a Bush/Cheney re-election this coming November.
For the negativity- from both sides- has already become quite oppressive so far in this presidential campaign, especially since the Democratic National Convention in Boston adjourned late last month and particularly as regards the issues of Homeland Security, the War Against International Terrorism and whether or not the War in Iraq and its aftermath are at all a part of the first two items. Two examples will suffice to make my point:
First, we have the group known as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth not only criticizing John Kerry's Vietnam War record but also complaining he has been lying about it all along (to the point of suggesting that he even lied in order to win his medals). The problems here, insofar as Kerry's own veracity is concerned, are basically two: 1. In combat, there is almost always quite a bit of confusion as to exactly what is going on (one could take just about any battle in History and find eyewitness accounts by participants- whether boots on the ground or sometimes far away high level commanders giving the orders and receiving reports on just how well said orders are being carried out- which contrast in significant ways with the ultimately official version of events created through sifting through all these various accounts and- much like a juror hearing complicated, conflicting testimony in a court of Law and, come deliberation, trying to sort out just what the actual facts might have been- coming up with the best possible sequence of events to accept as "fact"); 2. Memory, no matter how good a memory one might have, still tends to get fuzzier as more and more time passes and, in addition, one's memory is well open to suggestion as the events remembered seep further backward in time.
All we are left with, then, is the official historical record, which evidently- at the time- justified Kerry getting his medals: if that record was, indeed, faulty or the sifting of the accounts to determine "fact" shoddily done, how much of this could even be John Kerry's fault or responsibility? Did Kerry, during his tour of duty in Vietnam, have the political clout to force the US Navy to "fudge" their records as regarded him? Certainly, a John Kerry did not have the high-level political connections that could have accrued to, say, a George W. Bush (whose future President father was already a "player" in the Republican Party at the time Kerry was serving in Vietnam). No one would have paid much attention, in the political arena, to John Kerry until he at least emerged as a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War when he testified before a Senate subcommittee in April 1971.
There is simply no way for all of us outsiders- we who were not there on scene- to know just how much Senator Kerry as well as his detractors within Swift Boat Veterans for Truth might have, over the more than three decades since the events for which then-Lieutenant Kerry was commended actually occurred, convinced themselves of "facts" that, in fact, never ever really were! "In" Cambodia? "near" Cambodia? If one had been sent up the Mekong or its tributaries to an area so close to the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, does it really make all that much of a difference? If, at the time, one believed he was actually over the border when, in fact, he was not, where's the big lie in the retelling? And, if one's youthful bravado had him telling his buddies that he was in Cambodia when he knew he wasn't because, much like the fish in the story being bigger than it actually was in reality, it made for a far more ripping yarn, so what? More to the point, what does any of this really have to do with Federal policy decisions come 20 January 2005 anyway?
But the issue is clouded, where it is not even more complicated, by John Kerry's stature as an anti-Vietnam War activist after he had returned home. How much of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's take on Kerry's military record is, indeed, a pure search for truth and just how much of it is political activism thinly disguising vengeance for Kerry's later position against that war? It seems rather suspicious to me that John O'Neill, a Vietnam veteran who was- as the infamous Nixon Tapes so clearly show- the darling of the Nixon White House in their efforts to politically derail those who opposed the Vietnam Conflict, emerges as the point man for this group. Mr. O'Neill is certainly entitled to his opinions (he clearly supports the re-election of Bush/Cheney, as he has every right to do) and I am not at all suggesting that criticism of what Senator Kerry says about what he did in Vietnam is never appropriate (Kerry himself has made his service in Vietnam the lynchpin of his claims regarding his own abilities to lead this country: those who don't agree that he has such abilities have every right to say so and, further, back up that which they opine with whatever facts they might garner). It's just that, when I have gone to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth website, I get the distinct impression that these people care far more about what Kerry said as an anti-war activist than what he might or might not have done during his tour of duty in Vietnam-- in other words, that which might actually put pay to Kerry's own qualifications for the Presidency becomes secondary to some three-decades-old grudge still held by some, frankly, very bitter men.
And what did Kerry say back in 1971? I myself am old enough to remember his testimony (I can recall reading, while a freshman in high school, about Kerry's testimony in the papers [it was, indeed, the first time I had ever heard of John Kerry- and it would also be the last I would hear of him for about another six or seven years, until the day I first realized that the John Kerry who was the prosecutor across the River Charles from where I was attending college, about whom I would read in the Boston papers, was the same person as the anti-war John Kerry]), though I have to confess that any keen interest on my part, as a 15 year old, in his testimony paled when compared to what I would soon be reading in the so-called "Pentagon Papers"! Thus, I am forced to refresh my vague memories of the John Kerry appearing on the evening news that Spring with far more recent research.
Kerry claimed, during his testimony, that- among other things- atrocities and war crimes were being committed by American military men in Vietnam with the knowledge of a significant chunk of the Chain of Command. Kerry himself later would often say that he was over the top with this claim. At the same time, we do know that some, however sporadic, atrocities were, in fact, committed- many of these have been documented (though the evidence that these were at all systematic- or, for that matter, systemic- is quite inconclusive); many more, obviously, were not (I myself would meet Vietnam veterans while I was in college- persons who were 6, 7 or 8 years older than I, yet in the same class I was- who would tell me stories of what they had "seen some guy in my outfit" do: the look in the eyes of at least some of these men told me that "some guy" was, often as not, themselves!-- or were these, too, merely "far more ripping yarns"?) By all the fair accounts I have read over the past nearly three decades- from all over the political spectrum- Kerry was merely repeating what he had heard from other returnees from Vietnam, especially his fellow members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Were some of them lying or at least embellishing quite a bit? Probably. We know that Kerry soon left Vietnam Veterans Against the War because that group was getting far too radical for someone who was seeking a seat in Congress but a year and a half after his testimony- and, if a group became radicalized by mid-1972, there must have already been a fair number of radicals in that same group by early 1971- radicals who were likely only too eager to feed Kerry no little misinformation. But this does not at all change the fact that some soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in the Vietnam Conflict- albeit a small minority- clearly engaged themselves in activities that did not at all evince usual American military pride. How much of the recent attack on Kerry's military record is merely "blaming the messenger" now 33 years later for abject political purpose?
In addition, it is a reasonable legal interpretation of the Geneva Conventions that the so-called "Free Fire Zone" made famous by the Vietnam Conflict was in direct violation of those Conventions to which the United States of America was, as it remains, a signatory. It may not be John O'Neill's interpretation, it may not be the interpretation of someone reading this very piece, it clearly was not the interpretation of American commanders in the field at the time, but it is hardly an "off the wall" interpretation. And, under this interpretation, this would make many Americans who fought- some of whom died- in Vietnam potential "war criminals". I myself would not go so far as to agree with this concept but, again, it is not at all unreasonable for someone to have suggested this, as it appears John Kerry himself did back in April 1971. Note that the Rules of Engagement currently in use in both Afghanistan and Iraq seem to be far different from those of a "Free Fire Zone"- an at least tacit admission that, perhaps, there just might be something valid about John Kerry's 1971 interpretation and, therefore, the American military does not do this anymore!
But this kind of stuff cuts both ways:
For the inveterate Bush-bashers (with a boost from filmmaker Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11) have turned the seven minutes President Bush remained in an elementary school classroom in Florida after his Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, told him that a second jet airliner had crashed into the Twin Towers and that "America is under attack" into the most famous seven minutes since Irving Wallace's early 1970s potboiler novel The Seven Minutes was turned into a motion picture vehicle for sex film impressario Russ Meyer. The Bush-bashers see the President as a warmonger- even a war criminal and/or a terrorist (under some rather bizarre notion as to just what the terms "war criminal" and "terrorist" might mean-- funny thing, too: Saddam Hussein says the exact same things about George W. Bush!... hmmmm...)- but they certainly don't think of President Bush as a human being (I suppose they care so much for the overall welfare of humanity that they have abandoned their individual humanity).
But maybe- just maybe- George W. Bush is made of the same bone and tissue and sinew that all the rest of us are made of and perhaps, just perhaps, he was as stunned as anyone else by the turn of events that morning while, at the same time, mulling the likeliest options re: what to do next. For *I* well remember that awful morning: my wife and I had, unknown to us at the time, pulled out of our Northern New Jersey driveway enroute to a week-long vacation in New England at just about the same moment the first plane hit the World Trade Center's North Tower. Once we learned what was going on, we had the radio on in the car: we were turning onto the main road out of town when the bulletin came over the radio that the second plane had hit the South Tower. "This is no accident", I immediately said to my wife, "this is Terrorism!" But we continued driving in a combination of being stunned by the enormity of my statement and trying to figure out just what to do next (should we postpone or even cancel our trip? should we take a turn to the west a few miles and use our binoculars to look at the Twin Towers we would be able to see from the hills to our left?). After about- oh- I would say seven minutes or so, it was all a moot point: somehow we found ourselves already on the Interstate heading north. Was President Bush's reaction really all that different from that of my wife and me? And what's the big deal if, indeed, it wasn't all that different?
Michael Moore has told interviewers that he would like to think a Bill Clinton, an Al Gore or a John Kerry would have, as President, taken immediate action upon hearing "America is under attack". Well, I'd like to think that- had I walked down the street only two minutes earlier than I did the other day- someone in a passing car would have handed me a bag filled with one million dollars in cool, hard cash-- but this doesn't mean that is what actually would have happened! And what "immediate action" was there to be taken? Senator Kerry has himself claimed that he would have apologized to the children in the classroom, gotten up and done something quickly in response to 9/11-- but what exactly? Nuke some Muslim country? Walk on water, perhaps? And do we Americans really want a President going off half-cocked within minutes of some catastrophe or would we rather have that President get as much information as possible before acting decisively? Let's not forget that the United States did not attack the al-Qa'eda-allied Taliban regime in Afghanistan until nearly four weeks after 9/11... and I don't recall too many people, even hard core Democrats, having had all that much of a problem with that at the time!
The priorities for the President- any President: a Bill Clinton, an Al Gore, a John Kerry, no less than a George W. Bush- on a morning such as the 9/11 were: don't unnecessarily alarm the children in the classroom, get the President to a secure location (on 9/11, this was an airborne Air Force One) ASAP, find out what is going on and, also ASAP, why. President Bush and his entourage did just that and it is most unfair to compare Bush's response at 9:10 AM EDT on 11 September 2001 to what a Clinton or a Kerry, men who- after all- did not have to make these decisions, might have done (which is all speculation in any event)!
But, this week, at his Convention, President Bush and his supporters will have the opportunity to defend the current Administration against attacks such as these.
Then again, they will pretty much have to!