John Kerry's Lost Vietnam Gamble

Why did John Kerry surprise almost everyone by making his involvement in Vietnam the main focus of the Democratic National Convention this year?

All candidates have to cope with negative information about themselves. If the negative information is bad enough, they must handle it somehow.

Kerry and his team knew most of his fellow Swift boat veterans and millions of others were still furious about his long, savage smear of the U.S. military during his anti-war activities after his return from Vietnam. He saw political danger there.

So he took the biggest political gamble of his life. Sometimes, by framing negative information in advance, a candidate can make a political asset out of it. He bet that he could make one of his worst weaknesses into a strength.

That didn’t work for Kerry this time. The Swift boat vets’ book, Unfit for Command, and their TV ads were too powerful. And his convention’s concentration on Vietnam made what the Swift boats vets wrote and said on TV more newsworthy.

Delegates frequently take with them to conventions various buttons, stickers, and pins to distribute to other delegates. Knowing that Kerry had make a big mistake, I decided to make and distribute at the convention a visual joke I knew the other delegates would like.

While I served on the convention Rules committee in New York the week before the convention, I bought 300 band-aids and some little heart decals to put on them. To each band-aid I attached a slip of paper with my name on it and the sentence I always used to describe it.

When the convention began on Monday, I put one of the band-aids on my forehead and walked through the aisles.

This was my eleventh Republican National Convention. I was Barry Goldwater’s youngest elected delegate in 1964. I’ve served as the Virginia Republican national committeeman since 1988. So I personally knew hundreds of people there from many states.

As I expected, many friends stopped me Monday on the convention floor and in the Madison Square Garden halls. When a friend pointed to the band-aid and asked what had happened, I always replied with a broad smile, “It was just a self-inflicted scratch, but you see I got a Purple Heart for it.”

Invariably, the friend would get the joke and burst into laughter.

Everyone knows that John Kerry’s companions in Vietnam have publicly and very persuasively charged that at least Kerry’s first Purple Heart was a self-inflicted wound. Every veteran and most Americans now know that self-inflicted wounds don’t qualify for a Purple Heart.

I offered band-aids to friends who would wear them. A couple of hundred did.

Then things got very interesting.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe saw on television a lady wearing one of my band-aids. He knew that having people laugh contemptuously at your candidate is one of the worst things that can happen to your campaign.

Because the main strategy of the Democratic convention had already, obviously failed, McAuliffe must not have been thinking clearly.

He must have remembered that a sometimes- successful way to handle negative information is to refuse to discuss it and to change the subject dramatically. He tried that.

McAuliffe rushed to the TV networks in high dudgeon and raged, falsely, that my specifically anti-Kerry band-aids were an organized, despicable attack by the Bush campaign on all veterans and all who win military decorations.

McAuliffe made what had been an anti-Kerry joke to a few hundred Republicans in New York a hot national topic for a couple of days. Millions of people heard about the band-aids and got the joke, further undermining the failed Democratic national convention strategy.

Dozens of TV network, newspaper, and wire service reporters sought me out immediately. The interviews ran much the same:

“Are the band-aids an organized Bush campaign effort?”

“No. I bought and assembled the band-aids myself and handed them out personally to friends without any prior knowledge by the campaign or the Republican National Committee.”

“Do you agree with the President that John Kerry served honorably in Vietnam?”

“Of course, I agree with that. After all, John Kerry rescued one of his companions from the water and saved his life. It was the right thing to do, which is more than Sen. Kennedy did for Mary Jo Kopechne. On the other hand, Sen. Kennedy did not go back to Chappaquiddick with a home movie camera to re-enact the event.”

“Isn’t this an attack on all veterans who won military decorations?”

“No, of course not. Who is the U.S. politician who most famously showed his contempt for military decorations when, for national publicity, he threw his over a fence in an anti-war protest? Who disrespected all military medals for a political purpose? John Kerry, that’s who.”

For the first three years of the Reagan Administration, I was on the White House Staff. I know a lot of veterans very well because I was President Reagan’s liaison to all veterans groups.

Like me, most Americans have a lot of sympathy with Vietnam veterans still outraged at Kerry’s years of attacks on them–and even more for our POWs in Hanoi who were tortured because they wouldn’t say for the communists the same things Kerry said on American television.

If Sen. Kerry wants to answer the charges in the Swift vets book, by the vet who said the scratch he treated for Kerry was self-inflicted and the officer who refused Kerry’s request for that Purple Heart, he should permit independent access to his original Navy records. Kerry still refuses to permit this. Why?

Another aspect of Kerry’s big mistake is that his convention’s focus on Vietnam highlighted an early example of his lifelong habit of taking both sides of major issues. He tried to be both a war hero and an anti-war hero. Ultimately, he can’t have it both ways.

McAuliffe made this a big story and reminds me of a U.S. senator from Virginia about 30 years ago. When an obscure magazine described him as “the dumbest U.S. senator,” he held a big news conference to deny the charge. Only then did the charge become widely known.

Having lost their big gamble, the Kerry campaign now is like a snake with a broken back: very angry, still dangerous, but probably mortally wounded.

With so much of the media frantically trying to save John Kerry now, I expect the election to tighten up again. The race probably will be decided at the grassroots by voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. But certainly the Kerry strategy plus $63 million in anti-Bush television ads by the “527” committees have failed to date.

Their gamble was trumped by a brilliantly structured and presented GOP convention plus half a million dollars of TV ads from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

The day after the convention, the new Republican National Committee had its organizational meeting in New York. To my total surprise, the national committeeman from Louisiana nominated me to fill a vacancy on the RNC executive committee from the Southern Region. I was unanimously elected.

Thank you, Terry McAuliffe.