MARGARET WARNER: In recent days, John Kerry has come under fierce attack from the Bush campaign, and its Republican supporters over his national security record -- and his fitness to be commander in chief.
JOHN KERRY, 1971 congressional testimony: ...and the sacrifices we made for this country..
MARGARET WARNER: Last week was the 33rd anniversary of Kerry's 1971 congressional testimony as a decorated Vietnam war veteran turned antiwar activist.
Several House Republicans seized on the occasion to slam Kerry for what he said that long-ago day.
REP. JOE WILSON, R-S.C.: In a sad act of political theater, John Kerry accused American soldiers of rape, torture, murder, and even offered up comparisons of Genghis Khan.
REP. SAM JOHNSON, R-Texas: Is it any wonder my comrades from Vietnam and I have a nickname for him similar to Hanoi Jane? He is called Hanoi John.
MARGARET WARNER: Several Democrats protested.
REP. JOHN LARSON, D-Conn.: A decorated veteran in Vietnam, a person who received three Purple Hearts and the Silver Star for serving with distinction. And now, because he is a candidate for president of the United States, he receives the unbridled attack from the opposition.
MARGARET WARNER: But the attacks continued. Last Sunday, Bush adviser Karen Hughes weighed in on an old controversy over whether Kerry did in fact throw away his service medals during an antiwar protest in 1971.
KAREN HUGHES, CNN's Late Edition: I also was very troubled by the fact that he participated in the ceremony where veterans threw their medals away, and he only pretended to throw his. Now, I can understand if out of conscience you take a principled stand and you would decide that you were so opposed to this that you would actually throw your medals. But to pretend to do so, I think that's very revealing.
MARGARET WARNER: Kerry responded on television Monday morning. He insisted he'd always been clear about what happened that day: He'd thrown away his ribbons, and some medals belonging to other antiwar vets.
SEN. KERRY, D-Mass.: This is a controversy that the Republicans are pushing, the Republicans have spent $60 million in the last few weeks trying to attack me. And this comes from a president and a Republican Party that can't even answer whether or not he showed up for duty in the National Guard. I'm not going to stand for it.
MARGARET WARNER: Kerry was referring to an old controversy over whether President Bush had fulfilled his Air National Guard service in the 1970s. When the Bush record controversy first reignited two months ago, Kerry had said nothing.
Late yesterday, Vice President Cheney broadened the administration's attack. Speaking at Westminster College in Missouri, the vice president criticized Kerry for a weak and inconsistent record on a host of national security issues.
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Senator Kerry has been one vote of a hundred in the United States Senate -- and fortunately on matters of national security, he was usually in the minority. But the presidency is an entirely different proposition. The president always casts the deciding vote. And the senator from Massachusetts has given us ample grounds to doubt the judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security.
MARGARET WARNER: Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin went to the Senate floor this morning to slam what he called "the Republican attack machine on John Kerry."
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill.: Many of us did not serve in the military, even those of us in the Vietnam era. We did not volunteer for service as John Kerry did. We didn't wear the uniform of our country proudly, as he did. We did not risk our lives. Included in this group is Vice President Cheney, who used his deferments to avoid military service, as he was legally allowed to do. And yet we hear now Vice President Cheney leading the attack against John Kerry, a man who volunteered, risked his life, and received awards from this country for his heroism.
MARGARET WARNER: The attack on Kerry's national security record continues. Sunday, the Bush campaign launched a new $10 million ad blitz, criticizing Kerry's voting record on military issues.
AD FROM THE BUSH-CHENEY CAMPAIGN: Yet, John Kerry has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the war on terror: Bradley fighting vehicles, patriot missiles, B-2 stealth bombers, F-18 fighter jets and more. John Kerry's record on national security: troubling.
MARGARET WARNER: Late this afternoon, the Kerry campaign released a statement questioning Bush's entire National Guard record: "Bush has said he used no special treatment to get into the Guard," the statement said. "How does he explain the fact that he jumped ahead of 150 applicants despite low pilot aptitude scores?"
And campaigning in Ohio, Kerry later said to a reporter for the Dayton Daily News, "I think a lot of veterans are going to be very angry at a president who can't account for his own service in the National Guard, and a vice president who got every deferment in the world and decided he had better things to do, criticizing somebody who fought for their country and served."
MARGARET WARNER: To explore and explain the politics behind all this, we turn to William Kristol of The Weekly Standard and Tom Oliphant, a columnist for The Boston Globe. He noted in his column today that his daughter recently joined the Kerry campaign. Welcome to you both.
Bill, explain this to me, to all of us. Why is the Bush campaign going after John Kerry on Vietnam?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Well, I don't think ... I guess I thought the Vietnam War was over. I think most voters watching this are a little surprised that we're having a debate about Vietnam now in 2004 when there's plenty of current foreign policy and national security issues to debate.
Vice President Cheney never mentioned Vietnam in his speech. He attacked Kerry's voting record in the Senate which I think everyone would agree is a legitimate basis of debate. So the issue I guess is why Karen Hughes raised the issue of the medals and the ribbons and I guess their statement as well, it's Kerry's current difficulty in explaining exactly what he did that they are talking about, his trust, not his service in Vietnam.
I'm actually, but I'm, well, I think the whole Vietnam debate does not matter, the truth is -- we have elected as president someone who didn't serve in Vietnam and who avoided the draft. We have elected as vice president someone who did serve in Vietnam, Al Gore. We elected as president someone who served in the National Guard, George Bush, and vice president -- my former boss, Dan Quayle, did serve in the National Guard. So we've elected, we've elected people from the whole spectrum of options there.
And it strikes me that voters are willing to say 35 years ago is 35 years ago. Let's have a debate about Iraq not about Vietnam.
MARGARET WARNER: So why is the Bush campaign pursuing this, Tom? They must have polling, they must have something that tells them that this is a fruitful area.
TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely. Vietnam as a campaign strategy topic is an important one in the Bush campaign as it is in the Kerry campaign. And the reason is that it's central to biography, in this case, Kerry's. In the Bush campaign, there's an awareness, for example, that now that he has a lot of money, Senator Kerry is about to spend a lot of it on some television commercials which, like his commercials in Iowa and New Hampshire, which we all remember as quite effective with voters, will tell his story.
It is a matter of strategic importance to poke holes in that biography and cause people to doubt it. It's politics more than it's Vietnam history in some ways, but Vietnam is the subject at hand. Similarly the story is very important to Senator Kerry in his campaign simply because it is a central element of a persona they're trying to present, somebody who not only fought heroically in a war but came to believe it was wrong.
So biographical narrative is very important to both sides and knocking down Kerry's is quite important to the Bush people.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: I don't think it is. I mean, does anyone seriously think what people did in their 20s is key to the current -- George Bush has been president of the United States for four years. I think people have plenty of basis on which to judge him. Senator Kerry has been a senator for almost two decades. People have plenty of basis on which to judge him. If Kerry thinks he's going to win an election because he served in Vietnam or because he protested against Vietnam, I think he's crazy. If the Bush campaign believes that they're going to beat Kerry by reminding people that he threw some ribbons over a fence, I think they're crazy.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. So let me ask you another question. What about Dick Durbin's point that it is really out of bounds for people who didn't serve to raise questions about the war record of someone who did and did with distinction? Is it out of bounds?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Dick Cheney did not mention Vietnam. Here the Democrats are conflating two things: Dick Cheney gave a long speech in which he did a perfectly normal criticism of Kerry's voting record. Nothing new: the $87 billion vote, the first Gulf War vote, the defense votes. Kerry is entitled to respond to that. I think it's unfair to say that either the president or the vice president to my knowledge has raised the issue of Kerry's Vietnam protesting.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it's unfair to conflate the two, and what about Dick Durbin's point also? Do you think it's out of bounds? Even if you think it's ineffective, is it out of bounds?
TOM OLIPHANT: As a matter of reportorial fact, I think it's all linked. As commentary, just as I've been furious at the silence of Democrats in the face of some really outrageous comments in this season, notably by Michael Moore and Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic national chairman...
MARGARET WARNER: About Bush.
TOM OLIPHANT: That's right. If you look at the sequence of events from the standpoint of one of the poor customers out there, you've got an orchestrated thing on the House floor where he's a traitor. You've got the RNC, the Republican National Committee, involved in casting doubt on whether he legitimately got his first purple heart. You've got a $10 million ad that the guy is so soft on defense he'd hand America over to Iraqis, a Cheney speech and in presidential politics it is not out of bounds to connect dots. Millions of dollars are being spent here also on Kerry's side to present this image. So I think that it is important because this biographical narrative matters to each side.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, how effectively do you think that Kerry is ... he's doing two things: One, he's actually defending himself on the charges for instance that he pretended to throw his medals. And he's also counterattacking particularly in the last couple of days on the president and vice president's record. How effective is he on either of those?
TOM OLIPHANT: In terms of talking to the choir extremely effective and powerful but ineffective according to his own research in terms of talking to the people who ultimately matter in this election who are persuadable. Similarly I believe...
MARGARET WARNER: In other words, those people, those persuadable voters you don't think care about this?
TOM OLIPHANT: I think they would be standing up and cheering what Bill just said. But I find, and I'm interested in what Bill sees, I find an equivalent effect on the Bush-Cheney side.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Look, I don't actually approve of what the House Republican said. I think Karen Hughes was stupid to raise the passing of the issue of the medals.
But I think Kerry is falling in a bit of a trap if he wants to get into a big debate about what people did 35 years ago. I think some Vietnam veterans very much respect Kerry's service there; some Vietnam veterans I've spoken to dislike what he did when he came back. Those people have made their mind up. They are not going to change their mind about this.
I think the Bush campaign has done damage in its advertising to Kerry not on Vietnam which isn't mentioned in no Bush or Republican National Committee ad I believe but on the defense votes -- the $87 billion dollar question, three quarters of the Democratic senators voted for it, why not John Kerry, et cetera? I think he should respond on those and defend his national security record.
At the end of the day if John Kerry is going to win, voters are going to have to trust him on national security. I think he's making a mistake. I say this to someone who respects his Vietnam service. I think he's making a mistake if he thinks that simply saying I served honorably and courageously in Vietnam will suffice to reassure voters that he's tough enough to fight the war on terror.
MARGARET WARNER: At the risk of sticking with Vietnam too long, Tom, you were a young reporter covering that medal or ribbon throw-away event. Tell us briefly what happened.
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, you know, it's interesting. Kerry came down here with just these things that he wore on his shirt. He didn't have his medals with him. There was no plan to even have this event. It only really happened because the police erected a fence in front of the capitol and some of the veterans who wanted to throw or return some of their decorations, if I could use a neutral word, decided on that.
The night before this happened, I watched John Kerry argue quite passionately that they shouldn't throw them, that they should set up a bunch of cafeteria tables in front of the capital and sort of make a pile. He not only lost the debate, he got clobbered.
MARGARET WARNER: But what happened that day? He threw....
TOM OLIPHANT: He reached into his pocket where he had the decorations he had been wearing on his fatigue shirt.
MARGARET WARNER: Which are ribbons.
TOM OLIPHANT: Which were called by some people ribbons. He from that moment as long as I've known him -- 30-plus years -- has never accepted any distinction between the two words, as I understand some people in the military don't.
MARGARET WARNER: So he threw those.
TOM OLIPHANT: In other words Karen Hughes uttered a direct falsehood. He didn't pretend to throw anything. He threw what he threw.
MARGARET WARNER: He later threw medals belonging to other veterans.
TOM OLIPHANT: A couple of guys after this was all over, he was hanging out with a bunch of Gold Star Mothers and a couple of veterans gave him things that he put on the pile. One of them I think was a World War II guy.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: I just think, look, Kerry should... it's -- to criticize -- and I've done it myself in Bush's management of the war in Iraq and the postwar Iraq we're having a tough time there now. We probably need to send more troops. That's what John Kerry should be reminding voters about in my humble opinion. He's risen to the bait. The Bush people have gotten under his skin a little. For him to criticize the president on the National Guard service. It may have been foolish and unfair for Karen Hughes to criticize John Kerry. But why does Kerry want to get in a fight with Karen Hughes? That's what's now happening.
MARGARET WARNER: And today he was on a jobs tour he finds himself again commenting about this.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Again I just come back to the fact, I mean, if Bill Clinton could win and Al Gore, I was for John McCain in 2000, George Bush beat him. People respect Vietnam service but they're electing a president to fight the war on terror not to fight the war in Vietnam or even the Cold War. And I think what John Kerry should do is legitimately criticize the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq. God knows it's enough to criticize there -- and he's entitled to defend himself personally. But I think he would be better off debating Iraq than Vietnam.
MARGARET WARNER: Bill mentioned John McCain. John McCain has been saying, "Look boys, settle down. Talk about the present and not the past." Could he end this if he wanted to?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, the language has always been there. You know, John McCain has always -- I don't know if he's told you but he's certainly told me that he's always had trouble personally with what John Kerry did. They've talked it through. I think they put it behind them as individuals.
On other matters he has defended Kerry from some of the more angry outbursts. There's another player in this, though, who is interesting because it's from the other side to the left of center. That's Joe Lieberman. Who from time to time has spoken up saying I don't like the tone of this because basically it undercuts a national ... a real unity I think we need in going forward in Iraq. And I think the two of them, Lieberman and McCain, can probably help all of us get past our worst impulses in this moment if they would speak up even more.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think they could put a stop to this?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Good luck. I'm for it. Look it's a political campaign. Lots of people are going to say lots of things. I think President Bush though has been smart not to get involved in this. I would just say as a matter of just kind of campaign professionalism and discipline I'm a little surprised that the Kerry campaign, these things have been out there forever, the question about the ribbons and the medals but he hasn't been able to give a very clear explanation. The question about, I'm a little surprised that they've gotten themselves a little rattled on this. It will pass. This election is going to be about Iraq not about Vietnam I think.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. This has to pass too. Tom and Bill, thank you.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: A pleasure.