Is Kerry now ready to take off the gloves?

August 02, 2004|By Jules Witcover

BOSTON -- With Sen. John Kerry's much-anticipated "most important speech of his life" behind him and the Democrats' don't-bash-Bush convention over, will Mr. Kerry now take off the gloves on the subject most delegates yearned to hear about--how America got into Iraq and how America will get out?

At a convention at which the polls said delegates were overwhelmingly against the war, all he did was make a start, leaving the harshest indictments of President Bush to others, such as retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark.

Mr. Kerry's exit strategy was unspecific. "We need a president who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, reduce the cost to American taxpayers and reduce the risk to American soldiers," he said. "That's the right way to get the job done and bring our troops home. Here is the reality: that won't happen until we have a president who restores America's respect and leadership--so we don't have to go it alone in the world."

Mr. Kerry also promised to "be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war," and he needled Mr. Bush by observing, "Saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq doesn't make it so." He pledged that "as president, I will bring back this nation's time-honored tradition: The United States of America never goes to war because we want to, we only go to war because we have to."

In another dig at Mr. Bush, Mr. Kerry said, "As president I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war. Before you go into battle, you have to be able to look a parent in the eye and truthfully say: `I tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm's way. But we had no choice.' ... And on my first day in office, I will send a message to every man and woman in our armed forces: You will never be asked to fight a war without a plan to win the peace."

For all this, the strategy of Mr. Kerry's brain trust to cool anti-Bush rhetoric produced an acceptance speech that was just as much an exercise in personal self-defense, in the face of relentless Republican attacks on his leadership potential, as an assault on a president ensnarled in a questionable war of choice.

Democrats who shouted themselves hoarse all over America in response to former Gov. Howard Dean's strident rejections of an unjustified war had to settle for Mr. Kerry's assurances that he is tough and resolute enough to protect the nation's honor and security.

The decorated Vietnam War felt it necessary to assert, "I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president," and, "I will never hesitate to use force when it is required," meeting any attack "with a swift and certain response." The White House war room had to be pleased.

Mr. Kerry's speech reflected his strategists' awareness that his ambivalence on the war's start has made him vulnerable to a Republican pounding. It has not been deterred by his Vietnam War record, or by the army of military officers and veterans mustered at the convention to vouch for him. The GOP objective is to keep the challenger on the defensive -- where a challenger should never be.

Tactically, it's obvious why Mr. Kerry did not feed the hungry convention delegates what so many of them wanted -- a more forthright statement against the folly of a war in Iraq that has cost more than 900 American lives and left thousands more wounded.

Doing so only would have invited more Republican allegations of flip-flopping against the man who voted to authorize the use of force -- never mind his oft-repeated caveat that it should be done with a much broader international coalition. Mr. Kerry could have said straight out that he trusted the word of President Bush on the threat from Iraq and had been misled, but he didn't.

The question now is whether, as the campaign heats up, John Kerry will shed his resistance to take off the gloves and condemn the war, as he did when he returned from the Vietnam War and launched his political career. But he is older now, and the stakes are higher.

Jules Witcover usually writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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