John F. Kerry says he is looking forward to taking on George W. Bush on the issue of national security. “Bring it on!” he crows in his stump speech. “Bring it on!” declare signs among his supporters. “Bring it on!” chant people at his rallies. Such a display of self-confidence by a candidate is hardly surprising. It shows his supporters that they have not signed on with somebody content to go through the motions, but one who wants to win and is sure he will. What is surprising about John Kerry’s self-confidence on national-security issues is its source: his service as a patrol-boat commander in Vietnam more than 30 years ago.
His public display of returning what were supposed to be his medals during an antiwar protest in the early 1970s notwithstanding, John Kerry deserves credit for volunteering to serve in Vietnam–no gaming the system to maintain his political viability for him–and performing his duties with courage and distinction. Kerry’s war record certainly makes his personal story more compelling and has served to set him apart from his Democratic rivals, save General Clark. Yet, Kerry’s apparent confidence that this service will allow him to trump George Bush on the general issue of national security is essentially baseless.
Perhaps, he is hoping that his “Swift” boat will become as iconic for him as PT-109 was for John Kennedy. In 1960, however, John Kennedy was not trying to deflect attention from a dovish foreign-policy record with tales of wartime derring-do. PT-109 represented what John Kennedy claimed to be the avatar of: a new, younger, and more vigorous generation of leaders who were now ready to take responsibility for national government as they had taken command of infantry companies, fighter squadrons, and small warships only 15 years before. Kennedy never brandished his service as a weapon, claiming to be ready to use it to beat back any criticism of his national-security stance from Dwight Eisenhower or Richard Nixon (himself a Navy veteran). But then, Kennedy did not need to; he was a committed Cold Warrior who, as a candidate, promised a vigorous policy against the Soviets.
By trumpeting his service (and allowing others, like Douglas Brinkley, to do it for him), John Kerry seems to be asserting that, based solely on the fact that he saw combat 30 years ago, he would be George Bush’s superior as a war leader. In 1992 or 2000, this contention might have made sense. In either year, the image of Kerry as the courageous sailor might have been enough to earn him the nomination and carry him into White House. But, it is 2004. This assertion, therefore, makes sense only if voters can be persuaded to ignore one rather dramatic fact: George W. Bush is an experienced, tested, proven, and successful war leader. He has forged two victorious coalitions and has vanquished two enemies. He is a commander-in-chief mindful of his terrible responsibilities. And he is not afraid to take the difficult steps necessary to meet them.
When you step back a bit, what Kerry is asking people to believe is akin to asking them to believe that more than half a century ago, in World War II, Harry Truman was a better war leader than Franklin Roosevelt based solely on the fact that the former had commanded an artillery battery in the Great War, and the latter had served only as assistant secretary of the Navy in the same conflict.
Former career military man Wesley Clark certainly seems unimpressed by the former junior officer’s presumption (though his reasons are far from pure), effectively pulling rank on him in recent remarks. Nevertheless, the image of John Kerry in a Swift boat-PT 2004, if you will-might indeed take him as far as the Democratic nomination. It seems doubtful, however, that voters will imagine him as a stronger commander-in-chief than George Bush.
–Scott Belliveau is the director of communications for the VMI Foundation and an adjunct instructor in political science at the Virginia Military Institute.