HOW HE SEES IT The blood of politics is flowing freely



By STEPHEN WINN
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Isn't that just the Democrats' luck? They finally run a decorated war hero for president, and now word comes down that military experience isn't that important.
Low-road conservatives, of course, are attempting to demolish John Kerry's Vietnam record by that trusty old political standby: lying.
High-road conservatives, meanwhile, opine that whatever someone might have done on a battlefield long ago -- no matter how courageous -- shouldn't really matter much in today's presidential contest.
This week President Bush joined in that refrain. After ostensibly saluting Kerry's military service, Bush implied that it was irrelevant to the presidential race: "But the question is: Who [is] best to lead the country in the war on terror."
The best person to lead the country in the war on terror would probably be the candidate who would pay the closest attention to memos with titles like "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."
Bush, to put it mildly, still needs to make his case on that one. That's because he and his crew, by their own admission, discounted the significance of just such a memo when Bush received it Aug. 6, 2001.
But back to the importance of combat service in presidential politics.
No, it shouldn't be the decisive factor. Since the presidential job description does include serving as the nation's top military commander, however, a candidate's personal experience in combat is a significant qualification for voters to consider.
The Dole gaffe
Republican activists took this common-sense view as recently as eight years ago. In 1996 the GOP and its media cheerleaders spent ample amounts of time extolling the combat service of their candidate, Bob Dole.
Speaking of the former senator from Kansas, this week he joined the attack on Kerry's Purple Hearts with the old trademark Dole nastiness: Kerry "never bled that I know of."
Notice the weasel words "that I know of." So when people present readily available evidence that Dole is wrong, he can shrug his shoulders, say he hadn't heard that and walk away muttering about all the "confusion" on the subject.
Meanwhile, Kerry's most vehement critics can take advantage of Dole's stature by taking his "never bled" comment, lopping off the qualifying phrase ("that I know of"), and then endlessly repeating and embellishing the ludicrous charge that Kerry never shed a drop of blood in Vietnam.
Since Kerry takes pride in his military service, they add, he must be a pathological liar as well.
That's how a smear campaign works.
If Dole had been truly interested in Kerry's wounds, he could have glanced at "Tour of Duty," the heavily documented book that historian Douglas Brinkley wrote about Kerry's service in Vietnam.
Let's take page 287, for example:
"Just as they moved out onto the Cua Lon, at a junction known for unfriendliness in the past, kaboom! PCF-94 had taken a rocket-propelled grenade round off the port side, fired at them from the far left bank. Kerry felt a piece of hot shrapnel bore into his left leg. With blood running down the deck, the Swift [boat] managed to make an otherwise uneventual exit into the Gulf of Thailand ..."
Diehard Kerry-detractors might quibble that this passage does not specify that the blood on the deck came from Kerry's wound. But I'm putting my money on the proposition that hot shrapnel boring into someone's leg will leave a bloodstain or two somewhere.
People like Dole attack Kerry's combat record by raising one dubious charge after another, then assigning their target the responsibility for trying to "clear up" all the questions and confusion.
The records
The military records back up Kerry's story. The men who served on his boat backed up his story. Even some of those who now question Kerry's story once backed it up in the past.
Yet here is Dole complaining that Kerry's entire war record is "pretty confused," even as Dole further muddies the water by repeating another wild claim.
The central aim of a propaganda campaign is to demonize the target, to make them something less than human.
So here we have it on good authority from the Republican Party's elder statesman and, coincidentally, the last presidential candidate whose combat record did matter to the GOP: Democrats, even war heroes, don't bleed like the rest of us.
Let's mark Bob Dole down as one of the "low-roaders."
XStephen Winn is deputy editorial page editor at the Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.

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