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JOAN VENNOCHI

Truth should work for Kerry

THE BUSH campaign is working hard to turn John Kerry into Bill Clinton before finishing him off as Michael Dukakis.

With so many lies emanating from the Oval Office during the Bush years, the Democrats should own the truth issue in this election cycle. But Kerry's proclivity for doubletalk is giving Republicans an opening they don't deserve in their fight to reelect George W. Bush.

The latest example involves an issue that should be completely positive for Kerry -- the medals he won for valor in Vietnam. During a 1971 Vietnam War protest, Kerry threw his own ribbons, as well as medals belonging to two other veterans, over a fence near the Capitol.

At different points in his political career Kerry said different things about the event. Sometimes he implied the medals were his; sometimes he denied it.

Yesterday, during a contentious interview with Charlie Gibson on "Good Morning America," Kerry said what he should have said all those other times. He said there is no distinction between ribbons and medals and that by throwing away his ribbons, he was throwing away his medals.

"We threw away the symbols of war. I'm proud I stood up and fought against it," he told Gibson. Good answer; why not say that every time someone asks what he threw over the fence and why?

He is blaming Republicans for pushing a "phony controversy" about the medals. Unfortunately, it is a controversy Kerry handed them by offering different versions of the event over the years. As a result, Republicans are not Kerry's biggest problem. Kerry continues to be Kerry's biggest problem.

A person watching Kerry run for president wants to shake him and say, "Stop, please stop."

Stop trying to have it both ways, on issues big and small. If you voted against the $87 billion in military aid for Iraq, you did not vote for it. If the Kerry family owns a couple of SUVs, you do, too. Don't make it so ridiculously easy for the GOP to make you look foolish and untrustworthy when Bush is the one who is truly foolish and untrustworthy.

Stop complaining about the GOP's political attacks. You asked them to bring it on; they did. Now deal with it. Dealing with it does not mean reviving the controversy over Bush's National Guard service. The voters get it. They know Bush avoided service in Vietnam and did not show up for all his Guard service.

The voters are also starting to understand Kerry's conflict over Vietnam. He is the war hero and antiwar hero and wants the glory of both without the burden of either. He should talk about that with all the honesty he can muster, then move on.

Offer the voters a choice: the choice between talking nonsense or talking about what really matters -- how this country is going to move forward at home, how it is going to resolve the conflict in Iraq. What either man did three decades ago does say something about their character. But it does not say everything about who is best equipped to lead this country. Each must make the case on the basis of the men they are today.

Kerry should not let the Republicans bait him into backing down from the theme that diplomacy is strength, not weakness. America needs a world of friends to fight the enemy; fighting a world of enemies is lonely, costly, and ultimately ineffective. Why is speaking fluent French something to hide if it ultimately confers an ability to communicate with a country that should be an ally? If leaders of other countries are rooting for a president other than Bush, that says something troubling about Bush, not about Kerry. Why back away from strengths and allow his opponent to paint them as weaknesses?

The truth about the medals Kerry threw so many years ago does matter. But doesn't the truth about why this country is at war with Iraq matter more?

The Kerry campaign is determined to avoid the liberal label. Meanwhile, Kerry runs the risk of sharing the liar label wth Clinton -- and with Bush.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com. 

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