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A Wider Lens

Aaron Okin
By Aaron Okin
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, August 24, 2004
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Kerry at fault for Vietnam debate

In a time when the United States is faced with threats of terrorism, keeping the economy growing and the continuing problems in Iraq, it wouldn't be surprising if some of these important issues remained part of the pre-election dialogue from the primaries to the general election. What is mildly shocking is that the issue that seems to have received the most intensive media coverage over the course of the campaign season is not listed above.

The issue taking center stage, at least as far as the media are concerned, is the military service of John Kerry in Vietnam. And while Kerry and his supporters would have the American people believe that President Bush is responsible for continuing this debate, it's simply not the case.

The first thing to realize is that John Kerry himself has made it a point to intertwine his candidacy with his military record. Anyone who has even had exposure limited to his various television ads over the past months should have discerned that one of Kerry's only broadly consistent running points has been that he is a war hero.

On a more focused level, though, the Kerry campaign doesn't even really possess the war-hero status as a consistent position. In fact, it's another flip-flop - one that just took a few decades longer than normal to manifest itself. John Kerry's current self-promoted war-hero status is completely antithetical to the self-proclaimed war-criminal status he touted just after his return from Vietnam. This inconsistency is something that, disappointingly, many Americans have allowed to stand without serious question.

Even if Kerry's change of position on his Vietnam service doesn't affect how many in the country view the Massachusetts senator's candidacy, there is a group of people that was intimately linked to the work that Kerry did in Vietnam who are bothered. These people served as officers on swift boats just as John Kerry did, and they have formed the organization Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

This organization falls under the same tax-exempt classification as groups like - they are known as 527 groups and can receive unregulated amounts of money to carry out political activities (we can thank John McCain and Russ Feingold for these groups' new popularity). For the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (the "Swifties"), this has meant launching a Web site and placing ads on radio and TV stations throughout the country with testimony from soldiers that served with John Kerry. It has also meant raising the ire of the Kerry campaign and the wider Democratic establishment.

Of course, the natural response of the Democrats is to allege that the Bush campaign somehow has control over the ads that are being placed by the veterans.

What the Democrats have failed to do, however, is to offer forth a convincing reason for the president to specifically oppose what the Swifties are doing - it seems as though their major arguments are that John Kerry won medals, John McCain says the ads shouldn't run and the (disputed) claim that Bush didn't serve during the time of the conflict. Evidence has yet to surface that conclusively disproves what these veterans are saying, just as the words of those people who appear in the Kerry ads claiming the heroism of the candidate are the only pieces of evidence in John Kerry's favor, minus some awards and associated documents whose validity have been called into question.

The Bush camp has taken to answering calls to denounce the Swifties' ads by reminding detractors that from the early days of the campaign the president has opposed the actions of 527s and that the president himself has been the target of $63 million worth of advertising time - 25 times the amount of 527 money directed at John Kerry - and by maintaining the position that Kerry's choice to go to Vietnam was "noble." Evidently, the Democrats don't realize that condemning all 527s means that the Swifties' ad is also condemned.

Playing dumb is no surprise, since this entire dispute is actually a benefit for Kerry, even though he may argue that he's hurt by the ads - anything to take the focus off of the issues and his pitiful political record.

Aaron Okin is a regional development and political science senior. He can be reached at

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