WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty." It was the most memorable line from Mr. Kerry's acceptance speech last week at the Democratic National Convention.
But Mr. Kerry's insistence on making his four-month tour of duty in Vietnam the centerpiece of his campaign could backfire as Americans learn more about what he did in that country and, more important, what he did when he returned home.
To hear the Kerry campaign tell it, the men who served with Mr. Kerry universally consider him a genuine war hero who would make a fine commander in chief. The campaign trumpets testimonials from a group of fellow officers and sailors who served in Vietnam when Mr. Kerry was there and, most memorably, an emotional endorsement from Jim Rassman, the man Mr. Kerry saved when he went back to rescue the wounded Green Beret, taking enemy fire as he jumped into the water.
But most of the officers who served with Mr. Kerry have not endorsed him and resent their images being used to tout the candidate.
In one famous photo, which Mr. Kerry has used on his Web site and campaign literature, the young Mr. Kerry is pictured with 19 other Swift boat officers in charge of Coastal Division 11. But only one of the 23 officers who served with Mr. Kerry in Coastal Division 11 has actually endorsed Mr. Kerry.
Indeed, the overwhelming majority of other officers who served in his unit at the time have opposed his candidacy for president, including every single officer under whom Mr. Kerry served in Vietnam. Some of Mr. Kerry's fellow officers have formed an organization called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
During the convention, controversy swirled among some veterans over footage used in Mr. Kerry's biographical film introducing him to the convention and the nation. Some of it was amateur footage supplied by the candidate himself. The Kerry campaign admits the candidate lugged an 8mm camera around Vietnam, but claims it was common for sailors to do so.
I own a late 1960s vintage 8mm camera, which is nothing like today's tiny video cams. It weighs several pounds and is cumbersome to operate. I can't imagine carrying it aboard a boat in dangerous territory in order to shoot travelogues, but apparently Mr. Kerry thought the films would come in handy someday.
Indeed, he may have planned to use the footage in his run for Congress when he returned from the Vietnam War - before he decided that playing the war hero wouldn't sell as well as playing the war protester in the liberal Massachusetts district in which he chose to run.
But what Mr. Kerry did in Vietnam is not the real issue. It's what he did when he came back to the safety of U.S. shores that rankles so many who served this country.
Mr. Kerry impugned the integrity of everyone who had served with him in Vietnam.
He testified before Congress on April 22, 1971, that his fellow sailors and soldiers had "raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan."
A few days later, Mr. Kerry went on Meet the Press saying that he, personally, had "committed atrocities" in Vietnam, as well as accusing other American servicemen - the men he now refers to as his "band of brothers" - of doing the same.
Mr. Kerry doesn't like to talk about these obvious fabrications now, hoping that people will remember only the stories of his own heroism, not his attacks on the honor of the men who served with him in Vietnam. But for many of those who remember Mr. Kerry's bitter and false statements, he will never be fit to become commander in chief.
Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.