With a few exceptions, it appears that Democratic attacks on President Bush’s record in the Air National Guard are beginning to subside. While a welcome development for Republicans, it is little relief to party strategists, who expect the issue to pop up again in the almost certain event that Sen. John Kerry becomes the Democratic presidential nominee. But a more immediate concern to the GOP is the suspicion that Democrats are pulling back on the Bush/Guard issue in part because they are preparing to attack Vice President Dick Cheney on his lack of service in Vietnam.
”There’s going to be a massive attack on Dick Cheney soon,” says one source who keeps up with such matters. “The Cheney story of deferments makes Bush look like Audie Murphy”–a reference to the much-decorated World War II hero.
Cheney, who was born in 1941, received a series of draft deferments as a student, a husband, and a father during the Vietnam era. By the time the draft became most intense at the end of the 1960s, he was too old to be called. At the time of his confirmation hearings as secretary of defense in 1989, Cheney reportedly said he had complied with all the rules, and would have been happy to serve if called, but, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.”
An attack on Cheney’s past seems likely in light of the fact that President Bush’s extensive record of service in the Air National Guard did not prevent Democrats–who once defended Bill Clinton’s active avoidance of the draft–from labeling Bush a “deserter” who went “AWOL” in 1972. The ensuing controversy prompted the White House to release records showing Bush served two years of full-time, active duty from 1968 until 1970, then put in hundreds of hours in the air as a fighter-interceptor pilot from 1970 to 1972, and later, even though he moved to Alabama and stopped flying as his F-102 aircraft was being phased out, still met Guard requirements for service.
With that issue now on the side, an attack on Cheney would allow Democrats to again showcase Kerry’s Vietnam service. But it might also create problems when the time comes for Kerry to pick a running mate. Of the names that have been mentioned for the job–former presidential candidate Rep. Dick Gephardt, current candidate Sen. John Edwards, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson–none served in Vietnam. Some were too young, but others were old enough to serve.
Meanwhile, Republicans are rejecting what they say is an attempt by Kerry to shut down debate over his Senate voting record on defense and national-security issues. In recent days, Kerry has suggested that criticism of him on those topics amounts to criticism of his patriotism, or an attempt to sully his medal-winning record in Vietnam.
The most recent exchange between the two campaigns was set off by a remark made by a Bush surrogate, Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. In a conference call with reporters about the upcoming Georgia Democratic primary, Chambliss said of Kerry, “When you have a 32-year history of voting to cut defense programs and cut defense systems, folks in Georgia are going to look beyond what he says and look at his voting record.”
It seemed an uncontroversial assertion; Kerry has been in public office for decades, and his voting record is undoubtedly relevant to his campaign for the presidency. But Kerry quickly attacked, suggesting that Chambliss, acting “on the part of the president and his henchmen,” was questioning, among other things, Kerry’s Vietnam record.
In a letter sent to the White House late Saturday, Kerry wrote, “Over the last week, you and your campaign have initiated a widespread attack on my service in Vietnam, my decision to speak out to end that war, and my commitment to the defense of this nation. Just today, Saxby Chambliss–a man elected to the US Senate on the back of one of the most despicable campaigns ever conducted against Max Cleland, a true American hero–was carrying this attack for you.”
Kerry went on to accuse the president of trying to “re-open [the] wounds” from “a very difficult and painful period in our nation’s history”–the Vietnam era–for “personal political gain.” Kerry challenged Bush to a face-to-face debate on “the Vietnam era, and the impact of our experiences on our approaches to presidential leadership.” There is no indication that the president will accept Kerry’s challenge.
Kerry’s gambit surprised even some Republicans who have become used to his habit of citing his Vietnam service even on occasions when it is not relevant to the subject at hand. “It’s incredibly arrogant for a United States senator to say, ‘You’re not allowed to talk about my voting record,’” says one Republican. “Looking at his voting record alone, there is more than enough that he needs to explain.”
After Kerry’s letter, the Republican National Committee sent a strong signal that it will keep the focus on Kerry’s Senate record, releasing a statement criticizing 13 of Kerry’s votes, all in the 1990s, to terminate or cut funding for weapons systems like the B-1 bomber, the B-2 Stealth bomber, the F-14, F-15, and F-16 fighter planes, the AH-64 Apache helicopter, the Patriot Missile, and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. In an appearance on CBS Sunday, Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie brought up some of those votes, as well as Kerry’s vote against the first Gulf War. “Those are legitimate, public-policy issues,” Gillespie said.
When Democratic National Committee chief Terry McAuliffe, who was appearing on the same program, was asked to defend Kerry’s record, he at first appeared not to know what to say. “First of all, John Kerry is not the nominee of the Democratic party,” McAuliffe answered, “so–you know, but he has been attacked, so I will defend John Kerry.” McAuliffe then said Kerry had “supported every major defense build-up in this country,” adding, “This man fought for our attack subs, our Black Hawk helicopters, he supported. He voted for an increase for military pay. Goodness gracious, I mean, John Kerry voted for the USS Ronald Reagan. This man has many votes that we can go to that shows he supports the defense of this country.”
Kerry’s emphasis on his war record has also prompted some of his adversaries to suggest that he release the records of his service from 1966 through 1970, much as the White House made public hundreds of pages, including medical records, documenting Bush’s Air National Guard service from 1969 through 1973. Kerry’s records would likely contain routine information like biographical data, documentation of each assignment, transfer orders, fitness reports–as well as papers for his Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts.
It seems unlikely the documents would contain any groundbreaking, previously unknown information. And releasing them might backfire on Republicans by prompting still more positive stories about Kerry’s service. Still, some observers believe a simple sense of fair play demands that Kerry authorize the release of information, just as the president did.
There is plenty of precedent from Kerry’s own experience to support such a release. Kerry was elected to the Senate from Massachusetts in 1984 and has been reelected three times. His Vietnam record, including questions about the circumstances of some of his medals, has come up more than once. To deal with those questions, Kerry has collected at least some of his records himself, and has allowed some journalists and scholars to see them. For example, he gave copies of the papers to historian Douglas Brinkley, who used them for his new book, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.
“It was a pretty fat file,” says Brinkley of the records. “Most of it was pretty boring, but it was invaluable for establishing a chronology [of Kerry’s service]. I went through what he had. It was fairly thorough, but no medical records.”
Brinkley says he believes it is unlikely that Kerry would object to the release of his records. “I think he’ll probably release them,” Brinkley says. “There’s not much there…Every time he runs, the same issues have come up like Groundhog Day.”