What did you do during the war, Daddy?
I sympathize with John Kerry that his military service in Vietnam has been so maligned, and I suspect that this would have happened to him regardless of how he portrayed himself during the 2004 presidential campaign.
Yet I always believed that he made a huge mistake in placing such a strong emphasis on his service in Vietnam. (I wrote an essay about this in 2004 for Pulp, but it is no longer available online and I won't bore you with it now.) First, if it was such a big deal that Kerry served in Vietnam, while Cheney and Bush didn't, then why was it not a big deal in 1992 that Bill Clinton had not served in Vietnam? Certainly, the idea that someone would be trashing Kerry's record, while our own president had apparently used his political connections to avoid combat, was odious. (As was Bush's attempt to link his service in the Vietnam-era National Guard to service in the National Guard today, when members of the guard are much more likely to see combat.)
But Kerry's service in Vietnam was no more relevant to his ability to be commander-in-chief today than was George H.W. Bush or Bob Dole's service in World War II. It did not negate, for example, his vote against using force to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, a conflict that met all the criteria for armed intervention that Kerry laid out in his 2004 campaign. Furthermore, Kerry's emphasis on his war record--and by extension, his patriotism--implicitly conceded that the Democrats needed to prove they were just as patriotic as Republicans. In other words, he allowed the GOP to define the terms of the debate.
Of course, that's not to say that once Kerry did make an issue of his war record, that he should not have immediately taken to the offensive when it was attacked. I hope that he is doing so now simply to preserve his legacy. Because I do not believe that if he runs again in 2008, the result will be any different.