WASHINGTON – John Kerry (search) stands astride the decades, reaching back 35 years to his days as a Vietnam War hero to show the measure of his character now as a presidential candidate.
The pitch has been a powerful energizer for Kerry's campaign and now critics are hoping to use the rest of Kerry's war story to the opposite effect.
Kerry rarely gives a speech anymore without thanking the "band of brothers" who helped catapult his presidential bid from lost cause to apparent Juggernaut. With phone banks, personal appearances and campaign ad testimonials, Kerry's war buddies and other veterans have been a surprisingly potent mobilizing force for the Massachusetts senator.
"We noticed it first in Iowa," says Max Cleland (search), the former Georgia Democratic senator and decorated Vietnam veteran who has campaigned tirelessly for Kerry. "It is a generational phenomenon. ... John Kerry empowers veterans to feel good about themselves."
Veterans, says former Clinton administration Veterans Affairs Secretary Herschel Gober (search), typically are more like submarines, running beneath the surface in American politics. "But I think this year they've come up," he says. "They're excited because they've got a chance to have a Vietnam veteran sitting in the White House."
As with so many aspects of Kerry's personality, there are multiple sides to his Vietnam story. Kerry came home from the war with three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and growing disillusionment about the war effort. His three war injuries — all minor — were enough to allow him an early return to stateside duty. And after petitioning for honorable discharge six months early, Kerry became a leading force in Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
At one Washington protest, he tossed away the ribbons he had received with his war medals, and threw away the medals of other veterans who weren't able to attend. On Capitol Hill, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
In the same hearing, he testified that U.S. soldiers had been involved in gruesome atrocities — rapes, beheadings, random killings of civilians. "We feel because of what threatens this country — not the reds, but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it — that we have to speak out," he testified.
Kerry's anti-war activities still make some veterans uncomfortable, and that is tinder Kerry's critics hope to turn into a bonfire.
Gober worked to mobilize veterans for Wesley Clark until the retired Army general dropped out the race, and Gober now has endorsed Kerry. He says of Kerry's anti-war efforts: "Some people will not forgive him for that." But he predicts that more veterans will vote for Kerry because of his war-related actions than against him.
Exit polls from the Democratic primaries show Kerry running strong among voters from veteran households, just as he has in the general population. But political analysts caution against thinking veterans will be a decisive voting bloc in November.
"Every group in politics, from the religious right to people who want to save the whales, has their day in the sun as the allegedly critical, decisive group in an election," said William Bianco, a Pennsylvania State University political scientist. "This year, it's veterans. However, there's little evidence of a sizable veterans' effect."
Bianco said veterans tend to be Republicans and vote for Republican candidates at very high levels.
Michael Coale, a Vietnam veteran who was volunteering his help at the Vietnam Memorial on a recent cold, sunny afternoon, said he doesn't understand some of Kerry's anti-war conduct but was unsure whom he'd support for president.
"We were out there laying our lives on the line," he said. "I was drafted. I say, don't stab us soldiers in the back and say we were baby killers."
Cleland, who came home from Vietnam a triple amputee, said most veterans he talks to are glad to see Kerry validate their military service, but he encounters occasional negative sentiment from vets who are "not comfortable with the fact that he was the lead dog back in the early 1970s."
"But what I suggest is that John was articulating what so many of us felt deep in our gut," Cleland said. "I wouldn't have joined an anti-war parade, but John came back and began to see that the greatest service to his veterans was to fight (President) Nixon and to stop the war."
Cleland, who lost his 2002 Senate re-election race after his patriotism was questioned when he refused to vote for creation of a Homeland Security Department, said a "slime machine" was gearing up to turn Kerry's war record against him.
Ted Sampley, a retired Green Beret who has started a Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry Web site, is happy to volunteer.
Sampley, who has long been a Kerry detractor, has posted a photo that shows Kerry sitting three rows behind Jane Fonda at an anti-war rally in 1970, two years before her much-criticized trip to Hanoi.
Kerry, asked about the photo Friday, disassociated himself from what he called Fonda's "terrible" choice but said he thought his stance against the war was "a measurement of character."
"I didn't love coming back from the war I fought in and having to tell people, 'This is wrong, this is screwed up.' But it was," he said.
"And one of the things I'm proudest of," Kerry added, "is that throughout that period we didn't just talk about the war, we talked about the way veterans were treated."
John Hurley, who heads Veterans for Kerry and has known the candidate since his war-protester days, dismissed the anti-Kerry veterans as a fringe, "noisy minority" and predicted that even Republican veterans will be drawn to Kerry's campaign because of the "painful similarities" between Nixon's handling of Vietnam and how President Bush has approached the Iraq war.
"I think veterans are beginning to feel that this is our guy, this is our voice, this is someone who will stand up for us," he said.