September 24, 2004
Truth Be Told, the Vietnam Crossfire Hurts Kerry More
By JODI WILGOREN
ASHINGTON, Sept. 23 - The war over who did what in the Vietnam era rages on in the 2004 campaign. But it has inflicted more wounds on the candidate who saw combat, Senator John Kerry, than the one who did not, President Bush, analysts across the political spectrum say.
While Mr. Bush has faced questions for years over whether he fulfilled his National Guard service, the controversy over the authenticity of documents broadcast by CBS and questioning Mr. Bush's service record has largely inoculated the president from attacks on the issue, strategists say.
Much of the public had already confronted similar questions about Mr. Bush's service during the 2000 race, and voters judge incumbents far more on their time in the White House than on personal history, so the issue was already a hard sell.
But when CBS News had to acknowledge its journalism was flawed, it made the issue seem to be the credibility of the media, not the man. And the fact that a CBS News producer had put the source of the documents in touch with the Kerry campaign linked the Democrats, however tenuously, to the embarrassing debacle.
In contrast, Mr. Kerry thrust his decorated Vietnam record to the core of his candidacy to cement the idea that he was tough enough to lead the nation in a post-9/11 world. So the attacks by disgruntled veterans questioning whether he deserved his medals - and questioning his war protests upon returning home - were a serious setback. "Kerry had more to lose and so he lost more," said Frank Luntz, a pollster who works for Republicans and has been conducting focus groups for MSNBC.
Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam veteran, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska and now president of New School University in New York, said the skirmishes over the past six weeks "did damage to both men."
"I think it did more damage to John because he built so much of his campaign on his tour of duty," Mr. Kerrey said.
There is no sign of détente on the issue, with two independent groups firing off television advertisements this week filled with the grainy black and white images of the era.
Mr. Kerry's nemesis, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, is spending $1.3 million in five swing states with a spot accusing him of meeting with the enemy in Paris - a reference to his trip to the Paris peace talks, where he met with both sides. At the same time, Texans for Truth, which has offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who can document seeing Mr. Bush fulfill his Guard duty in Alabama, has bought $10,000 of television time in five swing markets with an advertisement titled "Choose Honor," which calls on the president to authorize release of all his military records.
But many observers believe these advertisements will have less effect than previous ones by the same groups as the candidates move away from Vietnam and become fully engaged in a debate over Iraq.
"Every American now knows that there's something really screwy about George Bush and the National Guard, and they know that John Kerry was not the war hero we thought he was," said Douglas Brinkley, the historian and author of a friendly biography of Mr. Kerry's war years, acknowledging that Mr. Kerry's opponents had succeeded in raising questions about his service.
"It's kind of neutralized itself, just by tiring everybody out," Mr. Brinkley said.
Indeed, Mr. Luntz and several other pollsters said voters were desperate to move on. In a focus group Wednesday evening in Kansas City, Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster, found that Vietnam was "the issue that the voters felt had been discussed too much,'' he said.
Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for the Bush campaign, said his candidate had never talked about Vietnam. To Mr. Dowd, the main residue of the recent National Guard controversy is a public that has become more skeptical of the mainstream news media during the campaign's final 40 days.
Mr. Kerry still mentions his service frequently, often in the context of his challenge to Mr. Bush on Iraq, but he has not said a word about Mr. Bush and the National Guard since the night after the Republican National Convention. "We've moved past it," explained a senior strategist, Joe Lockhart.
But the Democratic National Committee is pressing forward with its efforts to use the National Guard questions to try to undercut the president's character and credibility on jobs, health care and Iraq.
"The issue of the documents is very much in the news, so either we're going to be in the news talking about the president's service or we're going to be in the news talking about the documents,'' said Howard Wolfson, a party spokesman. "I prefer to talk about the president's service."
Both men's credibility has already been wounded. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll, conducted before CBS said it could not authenticate the National Guard documents, showed that just 20 percent of voters believed that Mr. Bush was telling the whole truth about his service, while 29 percent said Mr. Kerry was being fully honest about his.
But Mr. Kerry has slipped on other poll questions concerning character, and analysts attribute that largely to the Vietnam attacks. Mr. Bush is unlikely to suffer similarly, they said, because his case for remaining commander in chief is based on his performance over the past four years, not his stint as a Guard pilot.
"People who had very strong feelings about the president - his positives, his negatives - weren't changed one way or the other by the National Guard debate," said John Weaver, a strategist who works mainly for Democrats but helped run Senator John McCain's 2000 Republican presidential bid.
"The other thing it did is it stole about six weeks of time from John Kerry," Mr. Weaver added.
David Halberstam, the author and former war correspondent, said Mr. Kerry could still win the Vietnam War of 2004 if he used the lessons he learned fighting in the conflict - and then against it - to amplify his critique of Mr. Bush on Iraq during the upcoming debates.
"It seems to me that if you've been to Vietnam and you've done it, you've learned something and it's part of you and that stays with you," Mr. Halberstam said.
Other experts on the period, though, say the war remains a divisive subject and Mr. Bush is better off for having been less involved.
"It may well be over for this campaign, but I don't think it's going to be over until the whole Vietnam generation dies," said James R. Reckner, the director of the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University. "I can picture the day 20 or 30 years from now when there will be old men in nursing homes beating each other with their canes over Vietnam."