Vietnam war veteran and Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry has been ambushed and, for the moment, remains caught in enemy fire. Having made his five-month stint of decorated service in Vietnam the heart of his platform, it is now emerging as his achilles heel.
A group of veterans financed by Republicans from Texas and close to President George Bush are airing ads calling him a liar for the claims he has made about his service and suggesting that he did not come by his military medals honestly. Their case is shoddy, given that none of the Swift-boat Veterans for Truth were with Kerry at the time and their claims have been refuted by those who were. Their motivation is shabby, as most of them are piqued by the fact that Kerry returned home to campaign against the war. All of which makes the fact that their attacks have had such a huge impact that much more revealing.
For since the ads began screening, Kerry's slight lead in the polls has been shaved away. Two weeks ago, before the ads appeared, he was running even with Bush among the nation's 26 million veterans. Now Bush has a 24-point lead. The issue dominating the news cycle is not what is happening in Najaf today but what happened in the Mekong delta 35 years ago.
There are three things we can learn from this. First, there is no level to which Republicans will not stoop to besmirch a character, belittle an issue or befuddle the electorate. Second, there is no level to which the Democrats will not stoop to attempt to neutralise these attacks. And third, that the Republicans will always win in this race to the bottom because so much less is expected of them and, when it comes to muck-slinging, they have no qualms about getting their hands dirty.
Take Vietnam. At first sight this is an issue you would think the Bush administration would want to keep away from. Thanks to family connections, the president served his war in the Texas National Guard - and even then it is debatable whether he showed up. The vice-president, Dick Cheney, managed to defer being drafted five times, until the war was over, claiming he had "other priorities". Nine months and two days after the army changed the regulations so that married men with no children were no longer exempt, Cheney had his first child, Elizabeth, bringing a whole new meaning to the term family planning.
Nobody is questioning their record in Vietnam for the simple reason that, unlike Kerry, neither them ever served there. For them to raise Kerry's service is a mixture of chutzpah and desperation that could backfire. Bush has tried to distance himself from the ads, saying they were put out by an independent group. But since the money trail leads back to his friends in Texas, this won't wash.
The trouble for Kerry is that, in all likelihood, none of this will matter. The Bush campaign knows the attention span of the public is short and that few will sweat the details. Their hope is that by the time the claims of the Swift-boat Veterans have been discredited, a stubborn question mark will remain hanging over Kerry's military record. If you spread enough dung, goes the logic, then some seeds of doubt will grow.
There is nothing new in this. The Bush team employed the same strategy in 2000 against Al Gore, forcing him to refute claims he never made about inventing the internet and being the basis for Love Story. In 2002, Republicans managed to unseat senator Max Cleland of Georgia by branding him unpatriotic because he opposed the creation of the homeland security department. Cleland lost three limbs in Vietnam and is a former head of the Veterans' Administration.
But if the method of attack by Republicans is underhand, the issue they have chosen for this attack is understandable. For it was Kerry, not Bush, who placed his military service centre stage in this election campaign. The logic of doing so was clear enough. Clips of Kerry striding through the delta carrying a gun while his band of brothers (those who served with him) offered testimony of his heroics, served as a double whammy. They established Kerry in the public mind as a strong leader in wartime while providing a contrast with Bush, who stayed at home.
But by the time of the Democratic convention, the party had elevated his service 35 years ago from one aspect of his personal history to his principle selling point in his campaign for the presidency. Refusing to spell out what plans he had for the future in Iraq or the war on terror, he was forced to exploit this one moment in his past for all it was worth.
"If we do not speak of it others will surely rewrite the script," said Vietnam veteran George Swiers shortly after returning. "Each of the body bags, all of the mass graves will be reopened and their contents abracadabraed into a noble cause."
And so it was that Kerry referred to his military service alone to qualify him for the presidency. He delivered a string of nationalist non sequiturs: "As president, I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war"; "I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president"; and "I learned a lot about these values on that gunboat patrolling the Mekong delta".
Then towards the end he reached for the stars and stripes. "That flag flew from the turret right behind my head. And it was shot through and through and tattered, but it never ceased to wave in the wind. It draped the caskets of men that I served with and friends I grew up with."
In so doing, Kerry may have neutralised charges that he will be weak on defence. But he also made his war record fair game and set the ground work for one of the most nationalistic elections in living memory: a campaign that offers the choice between a Republican candidate who wants America to be obeyed and a Democrat who wants it to be "looked up to" and become "once again a beacon in the world".
Kerry is not only running for president, but in flight from a history he knows only too well. When he returned from Vietnam he testified before the Senate foreign relations committee that American troops had "raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to genitals and turned up the power, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians [and] razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Ganghis Khan." Just a few reasons why that beacon has burned so dimly for so long, and why Americans deserve a better choice.