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Vietnam duality challenges Kerry

War emphasis grows thornier

John F. Kerry had a choice to make about Vietnam.

It was 2002 and the historian Douglas Brinkley was on the top floor of Kerry's Boston townhouse, leafing through his Vietnam War diaries. The senator paced nearby. Brinkley had first approached Kerry to talk to him for a book on veterans-turned-senators but became intrigued by the idea of using this former Navy officer who had turned antiwar activist to explore the split personality of Vietnam.

For his part, Kerry was planning to run for the presidency, and according to aides, he thought a book about his decorated tour of duty -- written by a credible biographer -- might impress voters seeking a strong leader.

Now Kerry's record of military service in Vietnam and his opposition to the war afterward have become the single biggest challenge he has faced in his campaign for the presidency.

Four years ago, Kerry was warned about the perils of emphasizing Vietnam in his candidacy by his friend John McCain, a former POW whose White House bid in 2000 was damaged by angry veterans who said McCain had "abandoned" them in the Senate. The role Kerry and McCain played in normalizing US-Vietnam relations was still controversial with many veterans, McCain told him. Vietnam divided the nation in the 1960s and '70s, and the wounds have not healed.

Kerry was torn over cooperating on the book. Brinkley seemed fair from what Kerry had read of his past work. Friends had vouched for him. Yet this was Vietnam. Brinkley wanted total access to all of Kerry's uncensored, wartime reflections -- the words of an increasingly disillusioned young officer that could still be viewed as intemperate by the public. Just seeing those pages in Brinkley's hands caused Kerry to ask an aide to monitor the author as he worked. "What are you touching?" Kerry asked during one pause, Brinkley recalled.

"Kerry was very reluctant to spend the time with me to relive his past," Brinkley said recently. "But he knew Vietnam would be an issue in the presidential race. It always was in his Senate races. My book was a huge gamble. I knew he hadn't sanitized his collection because he was so nervous as I read it. Vietnam could cut for good or ill."

So it has. Kerry allowed Brinkley to write the book with no restrictions, and the result, "Tour of Duty," both burnished Kerry's reputation as a fighter and infuriated some veterans who felt misrepresented or maligned. The book has been a double-edged sword, like so much about that war in this race. Kerry used Vietnam as the defining example of his leadership skills during the first seven months of 2004 -- culminating in a strategically planned pageant of war remembrance at July's Democratic convention -- only to see his war service overshadow his political message and spark a roiling crisis for his candidacy as the race enters the homestretch.

Just as veterans inspired primary voters last winter with stories of Kerry's strength in Vietnam, other veterans have rushed forward in recent weeks to raise doubts about his injuries in battle, deny that he went on a secret mission into Cambodia, and condemn his antiwar statements after returning home. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, while saying Kerry's service was honorable, have benefited from the questions that have been introduced about Kerry's behavior during and after his four months in Vietnam: At last week's Republican National Convention, speaker after speaker painted him as a weak and unproven leader in the face of war, and Bush came out with an 11-point lead in two national polls last weekend.

Two months before the election, the attacks on Vietnam have hurt Kerry, pollsters say, and the damage could worsen. Kerry's team is now trying to fight off the attacks and turn Vietnam into an unalloyed asset once again.

Kerry has made Vietnam far more central to his presidential campaign than in his previous seven political races. Yet interviews with aides, friends, and fellow veterans of Kerry show that his decisions to showcase his war past in the White House bid was far from automatic. As with Brinkley's book, one constant danger always loomed: Talking about his combat heroism inevitably invited talk about his antiwar activism after returning home, most notably his 1971 statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that some US soldiers had committed rape, torture, mutilation, and other "atrocities" in Vietnam.

The Democrat now finds himself paying a price for those comments and the anger whipped up over the Brinkley book -- a backlash McCain had warned against and some of his own advisers had predicted.

"There was no doubt for John or for me that the far right of the Republican Party would use Vietnam to go after his patriotism, because it's the sleazy stuff they do," said David McKean, Kerry's Senate chief of staff and an adviser.

Yet in meetings with Kerry, McKean and other advisers say, they told the Democrat that he had an extraordinary story of heroism to tell Americans. Campaign advisers say they felt sure of two things: Past Vietnam critics like John O'Neill, now a leader of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, would probably resurface, but Kerry and his allies could neutralize the criticism as they had done before.

The attacks on Kerry by the swift boat group, however, have stunned many in the camp and left Kerry frustrated that the media have not dismissed the charges as unsubstantiated. "What has surprised me is the voracity with which they have tried to attack his heroism," McKean said. "I have never seen people lie so egregiously and get away with it. This is as close to McCarthyism as you can get in a campaign. The print press has worked hard to discredit it, but television just replays the charges over and over."

Kerry long felt he had an ace in the hole against such assaults: friends from Vietnam known as "the doghunters." In his tight Senate races in 1984 and 1996, Kerry brought them to Massachusetts to defend his Vietnam record from opponents' invective.

"These guys always helped voters see who John was," said John Hurley, Kerry's veterans' organizer.

Kerry knew they would play a more critical role than ever in this race. McCain's primary race in 2000 laid bare for Kerry that "an extreme fringe element" of veterans could possibly attack a fellow veteran, so the Democrat would need to control the story of his Vietnam service, Kerry advisers said. In the fall of 2001, preproduction work began on a Kerry television commercial featuring some of his Vietnam crewmates testifying to his "unchallengeable leadership"; it was broadcast to great effect in Iowa only 11 days before the caucus vote last winter.

The Democrat's preoccupation with McCain's failed race led him to call an unusual meeting in 2002: Aides from McCain's primary organization met with Kerry to talk about the role of veterans and the shadows of Vietnam in modern politics. They echoed McCain's advice from 2000 -- veterans could be enormously helpful or hurtful in another veteran's bid to become commander in chief.

"The key to veterans was having a communications network so veterans can knock down rumors that can spread like wildfire," said one person close to Kerry of the McCain camp's view, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

McCain's primary bid fell apart in South Carolina's early primary, and his experience there was one reason Kerry chose to go to Charleston for his kickoff announcement in September 2003. He wanted to make clear that the veterans' attacks that hobbled McCain would not hurt Kerry.

Indeed, Kerry hyped his Vietnam service at the kickoff, asking his former crewmates to join him on stage. But campaign aides were frustrated when the media did not embrace the war hero storyline and focused instead on the race with then-front-runner Howard Dean. As Dean gained momentum, Kerry's advisers publicly shrugged off the polls, but one statistic stunned some of them.

"A staggering amount of people still didn't know that John was a Vietnam veteran -- it was extraordinary," McKean said. "We felt like John's story wasn't breaking through, and it was a critical part of who he was and a critical part of the campaign."

Part of the problem was the candidate. Kerry rarely opened up about Vietnam, leaving the glory for his crewmates to share. But he concentrated on overcoming his own Brahmin-bred modesty, advisers said, talking more than ever about how he had "bled for his country" and killed Viet Cong.

"In all candor, John doesn't talk about Vietnam much at all as a person -- he's a pretty private person. He's not one to sit there and get into the details about it," Hurley said.

By far the most revealing account of Kerry's service came in December 2003, when he was campaigning 16 hours a day in Iowa and polling a weak third in the precaucus polls. A thick fax arrived on his campaign bus: copies of a cover story about Kerry in the Atlantic magazine. No one else put the struggling candidate on the cover that winter -- yet this was an excerpt of Brinkley's book, chronicling some of Kerry's bleakest memories and moments as a swift boat commander in the Mekong Delta.

"It has all the dark stuff," Kerry told a Globe reporter at the time about the Atlantic piece. "I hope the book has more. There's a lot more to the story."

Just before the caucuses, in January, Brinkley's "Tour of Duty" came out. Kerry was, for the most part, relieved. "He got it," Kerry said of Brinkley, according to McKean. Soon the chief of staff was touting the book by word of mouth, and the Kerry campaign sent copies out to opinion-shapers in the media and politics.

Among those veterans who picked up Brinkley's book was an Oregonian named Jim Rassmann. Standing in a bookstore that January, his eyes filling with tears, Rassmann read the account of how Kerry had rescued him from a Vietnam river while Kerry's swift boat was under fire. The action garnered Kerry a Bronze Star. (It has also been assailed as overdramatized by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.) Rassmann, a Republican and former sheriff's deputy, went home, called Kerry headquarters, offered to volunteer, and almost instantly found himself with a campaign-paid airplane ticket to Des Moines for his first reunion with Kerry since that day of war in 1969. Campaign aides carefully orchestrated the reunion -- telling reporters about it at the last minute and making sure that media elite, such as "Greatest Generation" author and NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, were there to witness it. The event, just two days before the caucuses, was widely televised in Iowa. Several voters afterward said they were impressed with clips of Rassmann, a former Green Beret, saying that Kerry was a man of "good character" who served in Vietnam "with distinction and good faith."

On Jan. 19, Kerry made a stunning comeback to win the Iowa caucuses -- and Rassmann and aggressive get-out-the-vote phone calls by Vietnam veterans were given much credit. Going forward, the campaign ramped up its use of veterans. The Vietnam strategy did not change, Hurley said; the emphasis on Kerry's leadership in war grew naturally.

By midwinter, veterans were greeting Kerry on the tarmac of every city he visited. And as he spent more time traveling and talking with Rassmann, former US senator Max Cleland (who lost both legs and his right arm in Vietnam), and his former crewmates, they became "like his best friends," both Brinkley and Hurley said, and put him at greater ease talking about Vietnam.

At the same time, anti-Kerry veterans like O'Neill were waiting in the wings. As the Democrat was sewing up the nomination in February and March, McKean, campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, and other advisers heard reports that veterans were organizing over the Internet and smearing Kerry as "Hanoi John" in mass e-mail messages. By midspring, some veterans began attacking Kerry over his antiwar activities, particularly his decision to throw away his combat ribbons at one 1971 protest.

Several Republicans picked up on these attacks, and the Kerry campaign responded swiftly, having the senator sit for interviews with the major television networks on a single day. By comparison, Kerry chose last month to say nothing about the swift boat group's attacks for two weeks -- in part because he felt that discredited veterans, not political equals, were making the attacks and they were not worthy of his response.

Those springtime attacks largely ceased once news of the Iraqi prisoner-abuse scandal broke. "They did not want to discuss any atrocities that Don Rumsfeld might face questions about in Iraq," McKean said, although the swift boat group continued to organize in private.

Kerry's 1971 comment about "atrocities" particularly dogged him in Internet chat rooms, and the Democrat tried to repair some of the damage by saying on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he regretted some of his harsh language as an activist. Massachusetts voters never gave him serious trouble for that remark, but Kerry advisers say that they knew it might have a far worse reception with a national audience. They also wanted to clear a potential land mine before the Democratic National Convention, which they wanted to suffuse with stories and images of Kerry's Vietnam service.

"There was no question that a lot of veterans still harbored ill will over John's speech about 'atrocities,' and they were determined to get back at him," said Jim Wasser, a former crewmate of Kerry's who has campaigned alongside him. "And it would be easy for Republicans in high places to manipulate them."

Advisers say that making Vietnam a centerpiece of the convention was a natural decision, once they decided to devote the event to introducing Kerry to the nation in positive terms, instead of going on the attack against Bush. But the war was also intended to blunt the sort of attacks on Kerry's patriotism that the campaign expected from the swift boat group.

"One of the reasons our convention stressed the themes of strength and national security was we knew this would be an attack," senior adviser Joe Lockhart said of Republican criticism of Kerry's leadership ability. "[The Bush campaign] had to resort to character assassination, and frankly, it's the Bush family political playbook."

For Kerry, the positive glow of Vietnam was never brighter this year than when he stepped on the stage at the Democratic National Convention July 29 to accept the party's nomination for the presidency. There he joined his swift boat crewmates assembled on the dais, saluted the FleetCenter hall, and declared, "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty."

Within days, the first of two television commercials by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began airing. Kerry's response, two weeks later, linked the group to Republicans, calling it a "front" for Bush doing his "dirty work." But then he became silent again, with advisers counting on the attacks to fall apart -- only to see some Republicans seize on his antiwar activities. Leading Democrats, such as the chairman of Ohio's Democratic Party, Dennis White, were bewildered that Kerry would be on the defensive when Bush chose to avoid service in Vietnam by joining the National Guard, and urged a new offensive. And since Thursday, Kerry has tested one out, telling crowds in Ohio that he would not "have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they had a chance," a direct shot at Cheney's five draft deferments.

Whether this counterassault will put Vietnam squarely back in the win column for the Kerry campaign will become clear in the next eight weeks. Democrats, including advisers to Kerry, remain wary and uncertain, just as the candidate once was about telling his Vietnam story. "Kerry decided to make Vietnam the centerpiece of his campaign for one clear reason: Imagine him without his military record -- he would just be another liberal from Taxachusetts," Brinkley said. "With Vietnam, he could challenge Republicans on their strongest position -- standing with the military and with the American flag. Now you're seeing the negative effects of that."

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com. 

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