The debate over Senator John Kerry’s service in the Vietnam War sounded a sour and dispiriting note as the presidential campaign of 2004 approached the Labor Day weekend, the traditional start of the final and most serious phase of the campaign. While President Bush prepared to accept the official nomination of the Republican Party, he praised Senator Kerry’s war record and expressed his disagreement with the attacks launched on that record by a group of Vietnam veterans who have been long-time antagonists of Mr. Kerry. But the president, while presumably disagreeing with the content of the ads, would not criticize the ads themselves, nor would he repudiate his Republican supporters who have financed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their televised attack on their former comrade in arms.
Political observers trace the development of televised personal attack ads to the 1988 presidential campaign, when the late Lee Attwater orchestrated a series of devastating personal attacks on the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis. Karl Rove, a protégé of Lee Attwater, has been the principal architect of the campaign strategy that brought George W. Bush to the governor’s office in Texas and, in the 2000 presidential campaign, to the office of president of the United States. Mr. Rove used the Attwater attack strategy in an attempt to discredit the war record of Senator John McCain in the Republican primary of 2000. It is a strategy based on the assumption that the typical American voter has a limited attention span. Effective campaigns will recognize the limitations of the voting public and develop a strategy that emphasizes images instead of staking out issues. Karl Rove and his Democratic counterparts are willing to commit enormous sums of money to manufacturing effective images while muffling bothersome issues.
Senator Kerry and his campaign advisers adopted the same strategy, and were guilty of the same condescension toward the American voter, when they decided to orchestrate the July Democratic national convention around the theme of John Kerry, war hero, reporting for duty, surrounded by his band of brothers. Former President Clinton artfully contrasted Senator Kerry’s record during the war with his own and those of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, all of whom found an excuse not to serve in military combat. But that contrast, while rhetorically effective, does not provide any reason to vote for Senator Kerry for president.
Senator Kerry can be rightfully proud of his record in the Vietnam War, as both a decorated veteran of combat and a principled critic of the war after he had returned from combat. The attacks on that record by those who have always resented his criticism of the war have been dishonest and shameful. But the controversy over John Kerry’s performance in and after the Vietnam War is a sad distraction from what is perhaps the most important question of the presidential campaign of 2004: Which candidate is better equipped to direct the continuing struggle against international terrorism that will be the major challenge to the United States and the international community in the next four years? A record of gallantry in Vietnam is no reason for voters to decide that John Kerry is better qualified to meet this daunting challenge than George W. Bush, who, in effect, sat out the Vietnam War in the Texas National Guard.
Instead, the most important issue to be debated and pondered in this, the most important presidential campaign in generations, is not what John Kerry and George W. Bush did nearly four decades ago in a radically different international context, but rather how well each man is prepared to deal with the world of today. Which candidate seems to better understand that world, the uneven growth of its global economy, the dark religious passions that exploit the resentments at work in many Muslim and Arab societies, the need to respect international law and to build new alliances amid shifting national interests, the powerful appeal of American ideas of individual dignity, equal opportunity and a society ruled by law, and the wise as well as decisive exercise of military power in an interdependent world in which even a superpower cannot go it alone?
In the coming months, the citizens of the United States will have to withstand the barrage of images and slogans generated by both parties and financed by enormous amounts of money, if they are to exercise their right to vote in a responsible fashion. In this most dangerous of times, we cannot allow the most expensive presidential campaign in history to become the least enlightened. Revisiting the sterile divisions spawned by the Vietnam War nearly four decades ago can only distract us from the inescapable challenges of today.