Attacks on war heroes' patriotism could backfire on GOP

BOSTON — BOSTON - Max Cleland is a man on fire, passionate, persuasive, determined to oust George W. Bush from the White House.

A triple amputee from Vietnam and former U.S. senator, Mr. Cleland was defeated for re-election by Republican Saxby Chambliss, who ran a TV ad linking Mr. Cleland to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and questioning his "courage." Mr. Chambliss, who seems the very picture of physical fitness, escaped service in Vietnam with a medical exemption for a bad knee.


If I were given to conspiracies, I'd suspect Democrats of engineering those vile anti-Cleland ads. An unfairly vilified veteran is the perfect poster child for Democrats disgusted with being labeled unpatriotic by GOP operatives. Wearing his mantle of righteous indignation, Mr. Cleland is free to travel the country campaigning as part of Mr. Kerry's "band of brothers," a group of men, he says, who "will not let [Mr. Kerry] be trashed by people who never felt a wound."

Mr. Cleland and his aging brothers still have much work to do. Even with the president's credibility eroded by the dissembling and deception that accompanied the invasion of Iraq - even with support for the war sinking like a stone - Mr. Bush remains the man more Americans trust to confront terrorists. It is not clear that Mr. Kerry's heroism in Vietnam will be enough to overcome Mr. Bush's advantage on that issue.


But Mr. Kerry's combat medals ought to at least give the Bush campaign machinery pause before it launches another round of trashy ads denouncing Mr. Kerry and his supporters as weak-kneed, wimpy or too French. That is getting old.

From the start of its ill-conceived war, the Bush administration has used intimidation to silence its critics. No matter how proud your patriotism, no matter how sacred your service, no matter how generous your sacrifice, the White House has tried to smear you if you didn't agree with its policies.

If they accomplished nothing else last week, the Democrats made it clear they would not tolerate those tactics. There were few moments in the FleetCenter more powerful last week than when retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark pointed at the illuminated replica of the U.S. flag overhead and declared, "That flag is ours, and nobody will take it from us."

Certainly, patriotism is not the sole province of the Bush administration's armchair lawyers. Among Mr. Bush's top advisers on foreign policy, only one, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, has seen combat. Vice President Dick Cheney has said he had "other priorities" during the Vietnam War - priorities that were undoubtedly helped along when his wife, Lynne, conveniently gave birth to their first child exactly nine months and two days after the Selective Service lifted its prohibition against drafting childless married men. Mr. Bush's priorities during the war were ... well, it's not exactly clear what they were.

But the Bush team's hypocrisy is as bold as its record of sacrifice is thin. They don't hesitate to denounce their opponents as cowards and traitors.

If Mr. Bush were shrewd, he'd stick to the legitimate weaknesses in Mr. Kerry's war record - the current war, that is. Mr. Kerry has his own dissembling to account for. After he made a persuasive case against an invasion of Iraq in speeches and published essays, he turned around and voted to give Mr. Bush the authority to invade. While he has tried out several rationales and responses to questions about his vote, he still has trouble explaining it. Nor has he advanced a plan for winning the peace that is markedly different from the current Bush policy. That alone gives Mr. Bush a rationale for staying in command.

But Karl Rove and his minions don't seem to think they can win in a fair fight, so they veer off into McCarthyism - the cheap shots and bullying tactics that deride their opponents as un-American.

And when they do, they just get Mr. Cleland - who has found renewed purpose in the Kerry campaign - all riled up again. All he need do is show up, and you learn something about courage, loyalty and sacrifice, about the price to be paid when young men and women are sent off to war. It will be quite the irony if the low road Saxby Chambliss took to the Senate ends up sending George W. Bush back to Crawford, Texas.


Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.