ARLINGTON, Va. - Last week, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry returned to Sept. 11, 2001. The senator criticized President Bush for remaining in an elementary school classroom seven minutes after the president had been told a plane had struck the second World Trade Center tower.
Mr. Kerry said that had he been president at the time, "I would have told those kids very politely and nicely that the president of the United States had something that he needed to attend to."
Mr. Kerry's actual decision-making ability, however, was exposed by Mr. Kerry himself July 8 during an appearance on CNN's Larry King Live. Asked where he was that fateful morning, he said he was in a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Sens. Barbara Boxer and Harry Reid.
"We watched the second plane come in to the building," Mr. Kerry said. "And we shortly thereafter sat down at the table and then we just realized nobody could think, and then boom, right behind us, we saw the cloud of explosion at the Pentagon." (Emphasis mine.)
The second plane hit the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m., and American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. According to Mr. Kerry, he and his fellow senators sat frozen and indecisive for 34 minutes. Mr. Kerry is dismissive of the president's explanation that he did not wish to seem panicked and so remained seated for seven minutes (while aides were busily trying to acquire more information), yet Mr. Kerry admits to not knowing what to do for 34 minutes.
Why does this matter? It wouldn't if Mr. Kerry had not brought it up and had not made a recent statement about his own actions (or in this case inaction) on that terrible day. If one preaches a certain line, one should be expected to practice it.
Then there is Mr. Kerry's war record.
Liberal interest groups with ideological ties to Democrats and the Kerry campaign have questioned whether Mr. Bush showed up for duty in Alabama as he neared the end of his National Guard service. They first questioned whether that service was an attempt by Mr. Bush to avoid going to Vietnam, and they have said Mr. Kerry is a war hero because he went to Vietnam and earned several medals, including three Purple Hearts.
This wouldn't matter much either had Mr. Kerry not made his Vietnam service central to his campaign for president.
The senator wants voters to believe that his "bravery" earns him leadership points and will make him more thoughtful and more reluctant to go to war than Mr. Bush.
Mr. Kerry has attached himself to several of his Swift boat comrades who testify to his bravery. But a new book co-written by a Swift boat veteran, John E. O'Neill, and including interviews with other Swift boat veterans, asserts that Mr. Kerry is lying about some of his claims, including how he sustained his slight wounds. Several of these men are part of a TV commercial in which they say Mr. Kerry fabricated his own story for political gain.
In the book, Unfit for Command, Mr. O'Neill and co-author Jerome R. Corsi write that Mr. Kerry took no enemy fire on the night he sustained a slight injury for which he received one Purple Heart and that the injury was accidental, caused when Mr. Kerry fired a grenade launcher at too close a range.
This may end in a "they said/they said" stalemate, but other actions and statements by Mr. Kerry might be worthy of more debate, especially since he doesn't talk about his political career.
That commercial by the Swift boat veterans, which Democratic Party lawyers are attempting to persuade TV stations not to run, has been attacked by Republican Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Mr. McCain calls the commercial "dishonest and dishonorable."
Yet Mr. McCain has criticized Mr. Kerry's anti-war activities. In a May 14, 1973, issue of U.S. News & World Report, Mr. McCain wrote that testimony by Mr. Kerry and others before Sen. J. William Fulbright's Foreign Relations Committee was "the most effective propaganda [my North Vietnamese captors] had to use against us."
If Mr. Kerry did not regularly invoke his Vietnam past, most people would not be focusing on it.
What he did or didn't do in Vietnam, what he said and did after coming home, and his reaction to the 9/11 attacks are now issues in play that will help voters decide between a leader they know and a man whose leadership skills ought to be seriously questioned.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.