Kerry will win the patriot game
Since the onset of the cold war, the Republicans have attempted to taint the Democrats as unpatriotic, in league with Americaâ€™s enemies, without and within. With the cold warâ€™s end, one of the central organising principles of the Republican political strategy dissolved. But in the aftermath of September 11, George Bush and his political adviser Karl Rove have reanimated the patriot game, and Democrats have been conflated with terrorists and tyrants.
The founding father of the Republican patriot game was Richard Nixon, whose career was borne along by impugning the patriotism of Democratic opponents and uncovering
subversives whom he claimed represented the heart of the new deal. His relentless ambition, however, was thwarted when he found himself confronted by a war hero, John F Kennedy. In 1960, the game was over. But the Vietnam war gave Nixon the platform for his resurrection. Once he became president, the game of smearing the Democrats was reinvented as he set Vietnam veterans and hard hat, blue-collar workers against war protesters.
In the spring of 1971, a worrisome new political figure emerged to oppose Nixonâ€™s Vietnam policy. On April 22, John Kerry, wearing combat fatigues, his silver star, bronze star and three purple hearts, testified before the Senate foreign relations committee.
â€œHow do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?â€ Kerry asked. â€œHow do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? This administration has done us the ultimate dishonour. They have attempted to disown us and the sacrifices we made for this country.â€
According to Nixonâ€™s secret White House tapes, a number of fretful meetings were held about how to discredit Kerry. Nixon, the ultimate opportunist, wanted to characterise Kerry as one, too. â€œWell, he is sort of a phoney, isnâ€™t he?â€ Nixon was recorded as saying. â€œA racket, sure.â€ â€œHe came back a hawk and became a dove when he saw the political opportunities,â€ Charles Colson, his hatchet man, noted. At which Nixon said: â€œWell, anyway, keep the faith.â€ Colson then sent Nixon a memo: â€œDestroy the young demagogue...â€
The day after Kerryâ€™s testimony, Nixon held another meeting. His chief of staff, HR Haldeman, said: â€œHe did a superb job on it at foreign relations committee yesterday. A Kennedy-type guy, he looks like a Kennedy, and he talks exactly like a Kennedy.â€
That sort of comparison could only incite Nixonâ€™s dread and envy. He did not believe that Kerry had ever won medals for bravery. â€œBob, the navy didnâ€™t have any casualties in Vietnam except in the air,â€ he insisted. Three days later, Haldeman returned. â€œWeâ€™ve got some interesting dope on Kerry. Kerry, it turns out, some time ago decided he wanted to get into politics.â€
In another meeting, Haldeman and John Ehrlichman suggested to Nixon that if Kerry led protesters who cut their hair and wore ties and allied with â€œthe hard hatsâ€, they would win a majority to their side. â€œThatâ€™s right,â€ said Nixon. But, he added: â€œTheyâ€™re against all that.â€
From the Republican side, Kerryâ€™s march toward the Democratic presidential nomination has appeared as another chance to re-engage with the patriot game. But questions raised about the rationale for the Iraq war have brought to the surface the palimpsest of Vietnam.
Bush, the heir of the Nixon party, facing a genuine war hero and a critic of that war and this, finds himself scurrying to explain his apparent absence without leave from his national guard service for an entire year during Vietnam.
His White House is tossing scraps of records to the press that are only provoking additional questions about his prior false explanations. Democratic strategists are now planning to use the tape of Bush, wearing a flight suit on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, declaring: â€œMission accomplishedâ€, which Republicans were once aiming to use as the centrepiece of their campaign.
Kerryâ€™s appeal to veterans isnâ€™t simply because heâ€™s a veteran. For the Vietnam vets, he has come to stand for the male, blue-collar worker of their generation, the ultimate swing voter. In the light of comparison, they are coming to see Bush as the privileged evader of service, who now is standing with his wealthy friends against them. Kerry is the aristocrat, as a member of the band of brothers. Nixonâ€™s fear is being realised.
Marco Trbovich served in the navy with Kerry, marched against the Vietnam war with
him, worked in his campaigns, and is now the communications director of the United Steel Workers of America. â€œJohnâ€™s been in the foxhole,â€ he told me.â€
Heâ€™s endured, survived and never forgotten who these guys are. This is completely authentic. If youâ€™re a veteran of Vietnam you understand how unjustly the system can treat you. Now the economic system is treating them unjustly, and Bush is responsible. Johnâ€™s credibility with working-class men who didnâ€™t get college educations is enormous. A guy who pretends and puts on a jumpsuit doesnâ€™t get it.â€
Bush, in his interview this week on NBCâ€™s Meet the Press, styled himself as a â€œwar presidentâ€. But he finds himself in a quagmire of his own making and the patriot game has taken an unexpected turn.
Blumenthal, former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, is author of The Clinton Wars