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Speak for yourself, John Kerry

THROUGH SURROGATES, George W. Bush is trying to discredit the story of John Kerry, war hero. John Kerry should not leave his defense to surrogates.

Regular readers know I do not appreciate Kerry's nuance regarding Iraq, his fence-straddling on issues like gay marriage and his recent effort to finesse a career of pro-choice votes by now stressing a belief that life begins at conception. It adds up to an unseemly effort to side-step the label that best describes his voting record: liberal. Kerry should focus more on the lessons of Vietnam, and less on his heroics in Vietnam. If he were true to those lessons, he would not be telling voters he would have voted to authorize war with Iraq knowing all that we now know.

But criticizing him for political expedience is different from calling him a liar. That's what the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are doing. By questioning Kerry's version of events during his tour of duty, these veterans are helping Bush plant seeds of doubt about Kerry's truthfulness.

There is something ridiculous about a president without credibility attacking his opponent's credibility.

But ridiculous as it may be, Kerry ignores the attack at his peril. If Bush and Kerry are both liars, it gives voters a reason to rationalize sticking with Bush.

Bush is the known purveyor of false information. He is the president who convinced a nation to wage war because, as he told us, Iraq represented an imminent threat to America. He is the president who invaded another country on the basis of bad intelligence or bad faith -- it doesn't really matter which. Either scenario explains why people don't trust the administration's terror warnings. Bush's current state of political vulnerability is a direct product of the nation's collective skepticism about him and his administration. Based on their track record, there is precious little reason to trust them on anything.

Kerry offers the promise of a credible voice speaking truth to Americans and the world. Therefore, Bush's one hope for reelection rests in changing that perception about Kerry. The incumbent must somehow turn this election into a choice between liars. That's what the Bush campaign is doing via the book, "Unfit for Command," written by the Vietnam veterans who question Kerry's actions in the war, and via a Willie Horton-like television commercial by those same vets that has been denounced by Democrats and Republicans alike. However, having surrogates denounce an ad and question the motives of the attackers does not necessarily diminish their effectiveness. There are two lines of attack: the first is that Kerry does not deserve his war medals; the second raises doubts about past statements Kerry made about being in Cambodia on Christmas Eve in 1968.

It's unlikely voters will be swayed much by questions about Kerry's specific acts of heroism. For every charge about what he did and under what circumstances, there are crewmates who passionately vouch for his bravery. Besides, many voters will conclude that simply by being in Vietnam, Kerry put his life on the line; who are they to judge what makes a hero? (Clearly, "modest hero" will not be his epitaph, but that is another issue.)

Kerry's statements about Cambodia do have traction for opponents. He has referred to spending Christmas or Christmas Eve 1968 in Cambodia and coming under fire. At the time Cambodia was neutral and supposedly off-limits to US troops. "I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia," Kerry said in 1986 at a Senate committee hearing on US policy toward Central America. "I remember what it was like to be shot at by the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there, the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared -- seared -- in me."

The Kerry campaign now says Kerry's runs into Cambodia came in early 1969. "Swift boat crews regularly operated along the Cambodian border from Ha Tien on the Gulf of Thailand to the rivers of the Mekong south and west of Saigon," Michael Meehan, a Kerry adviser, said in a statement last week. "Many times he was on or near the Cambodian border and on one occasion crossed into Cambodia at the request of members of a special operations group."

Answers like that aren't good enough. Kerry put his Vietnam service before voters as the seminal character issue of his presidential campaign. He should answer every question voters have about it -- and he should answer them himself.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is 

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