|Kerry Gets Unhinged
by John M. Curtis
Copyright April 27, 2004
eacting to conflicting reports about what he did with his Vietnam medals at a 1971 Washington antiwar rally, expected Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) bristled when asked to clarify the facts. Calling press reports “a phony controversy,” Kerry allowed the current brouhaha to get out of hand. While the controversy might be insignificant, Kerry's reaction was not. Getting too defensive, Kerry must stop overreacting and prove he's up to the taskof running for president. “I have been accurate precisely about what took place,” said Kerry on ABC News' “Good Morning America,” insisting that there are no inconsistencies. Yet a Nov. 6, 1971 interview on Washington's WRC TV, Kerry clearly said he discarded his medals. “How many did you give back?” asked the host. Kerry responded, “I gave back, I can't remember, six, seven, eight, nine.”
Unlike other protesters, Kerry now admits discarding “ribbons,” not the actual medals, including the Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and three Purple Hearts. While a decorated war hero, Kerry became a vocal antiwar protester, convinced of U.S. failures in Southeast Asia. Kerry could have easily skirted the issue, telling the press he no longer remembers but instead gave an explanation at odds with the 1971 account. Reacting defensively doesn't look good for the four-term U.S. senator who disavows his liberal credentials. Kerry rejects political labels yet has one of the most liberal voting records in Congress. Instead of hiding his liberal past, he should convince voters how his liberal passions paint a better future for disgruntled voters. Kerry's medal flap seems insignificant but highlights his reluctance to stake out clear positions that might alienate possible voters.
White House strategists are having a field day watching Kerry overreact and short-circuit. Like the Clinton-Lewinsky flap, Kerry's medal hullabaloo highlights how trivial controversies turn into big events. Controversies become proving grounds for testing candidates under fire. So far, Kerry fell into the trap and has not made the grade, showing the kind of unappealing defensiveness causing erosion in the polls. Unlike President Bush, Kerry responds directly to every insulting remark rather than letting operatives do the dirty work. If the trend continues, Kerry won't be a viable nominee by the time of the Democratic National Convention in August. Concocting lame excuses hasn't helped his cause. Showing shades of Clinton, “Back then, you know ribbons, medals were interchangeable,” said Kerry, turning off more voters, losing confidence in his political skills.
Going for the jugular, Bush's key campaign advisor and former communication director Karen Hughes said Kerry “only pretended” to throw away his medals. Hughes points out that Kerry can't keep his story straight, denting the Massachusetts senator's credibility. Hughes implied it's easier for Kerry to throw out some else's medals than his own. Kerry's problems go beyond the medal flap, trying to convince jaded voters that he's been reincarnated as a centrist or moderate. As long as Kerry denies he's a liberal, it's going to be a rocky road to the convention. Proud liberals don't have to wring their hands and apologize for having a progressive agenda. Kerry's fence-sitting on Iraq gives independent presidential hopeful Ralph Nader an appealing antiwar platform. With all Kerry's disgust about Vietnam, where's his outrage about young Americans going to their graves in Iraq?
Kerry's inconsistencies reflect an individual besieged with self-doubt, unable to handle the rough-and-tumble of the campaign. Kerry's medal controversy symbolizes his unwillingness to take a stand and deal with the repercussions. You can't contrast yourself with a popular incumbent when you take virtually the same positions. Kerry gives the medal story legs by equivocating on other issues. At the rate things are going, he won't be a viable candidate by the convention. Whoever Kerry chooses as VP won't bail him out for a succession of amateurish blunders. You can't unseat and incumbent by waiting for bad news about Iraq and the economy. Whatever ground Kerry lost because of equivocation, he's bound to multiply his losses, insisting that medals and ribbons are somehow interchangeable. Lucky for Bush, he didn't shoot off his mouth about his service in the National Guard.
Finding himself in hot water, Kerry must divert attention before his medals' flap upends his candidacy. Playing fast-and-loose creates reservations among voters seeking a change in November. Voters won't abandon a popular incumbent on hot air alone. It will take a dramatic VP choice and unequivocal campaign issues to salvage Kerry's flagging appeal. University of Massachusetts political scientist Lou DiNatale believes parsing and prevarication keeps Kerry's options open. “The guy has been an opportunistic idealist all his life,” said DiNatale, accusing Kerry of cynical manipulation of public opinion. Judging by recent polls, Kerry's recent maneuvers haven't worked. Before it's too late, Kerry must stop overreacting, contain his bravado and allow his handlers to answer Bush's attacks. If current trends continue, Kerry won't be around in November.
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