Even before President George W. Bush delivered a somewhat lackluster acceptance speech to close the Republican Convention on Thursday evening, the battle lines between him and challenger John Kerry were clearly drawn: It's 9/11 versus Vietnam.
Take your pick. After Bush promised "steady, consistent, principled leadership," Kerry lambasted "those who refused to serve (in Vietnam) when they could have ... and who misled our nation into Iraq."
That's the way the two major candidates have chosen to present themselves to the voters, and they'll have to live with their respective decisions for the next two months. The president must convince voters that they'll be safer if he wins a second term while Sen. Kerry must prove that his Vietnam experience, and subsequent actions, qualify him to lead the nation in a time of war.
The New York Times, which openly supports the Massachusetts senator, had this to say about the president's emphasis on the bloody terrorist attacks against New York (where the GOP convention was held) and Washington: "There is only the finest of lines between invoking a disaster in which all New Yorkers, and all Americans, regardless of party, felt such a devastating stake, and exploiting it for partisan advantage. From morning to night, the Republicans strode proudly, even defiantly, right up to that line - if not over it - and the delegates responded with roaring approval." Of course they did because President Bush's strong response to the 9/11 attacks inspired the nation.
That doesn't mean I approve of everything the president did after Sept. 11; as you know, I have serious reservations about how he has handled the war in Iraq. Although it was relatively easy to "win" that war, it has been much more difficult to win the peace in that chaotic Muslim nation, and our efforts to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq have come at a high cost - the lives of nearly 1,000 young Americans.
But, as maverick Sen. John McCain of Arizona reminded his fellow Republicans last Monday, "In that moment (9/11), we were not different races. We were not poor or rich. We were not Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. We were not two countries. We were Americans." And that's a point well worth remembering during this contentious presidential election campaign as senators Kerry and John Edwards push their "two Americas" strategy.
Republicans have criticized Kerry for his contradictory U.S. Senate voting record on defense and national security issues over the past 20 years, a record that "America's Mayor" Rudy Giuliani described as "consistently inconsistent." Such as when Kerry claimed to have actually voted for the $87 billion appropriation to support our troops in Iraq before he voted against it.
Following his heroic service in Vietnam, Lt. Kerry returned home to become an anti-war activist, accusing American servicemen of burning villages and killing babies. That's why some of his fellow Vietnam vets formed a "527" (named after a loophole in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law) organization, Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, to broadcast their hostile version of the senator's four-month tour of duty in Vietnam. Kerry and his supporters screamed bloody murder but he brought the criticism upon himself by deciding to make Vietnam the centerpiece of his presidential campaign rather than his questionable 30-year record in public service.
And while Democrats complained about the Swift Boat TV ads, their own 527 organizations, like MoveOn.org, continued to beat up on President Bush, at one point going so far as to compare him to Hitler. That was the handiwork of MoveOn's chief financier, George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire who has spent more than $15 million of his own money to defeat the president. Bush and Sen. McCain responded by calling for the elimination of all 527 ads, which isn't going to happen.
Somewhat surprisingly, the New York Times acknowledged that both parties had exploited 9/11 images. "At their convention in Boston, the Democrats offered their own emotional tribute (to 9/11 victims), with stirring music and videos, and delegates holding small flashlights simulating candles in the darkened hall," wrote Times reporter Todd Purdum. He commented after the Republicans showcased three 9/11 widows followed by a haunting rendition of "Amazing Grace" by Daniel Rodriguez, the singing police officer who became a fixture at New York Yankee games after the terrorist attacks that killed more than 2,600 innocent civilians. The conclusion I draw from these carefully scripted performances is that all's fair in love, war and politics.
With so many other important issues to discuss - the economy, health care and illegal immigration come to mind along with our own Nevada issue, Yucca Mountain - it's a shame the candidates have chosen to campaign almost exclusively on 9/11 and Vietnam. But it's their choice and the main questions are which one will be the more effective commander-in-chief in the War on Terrorism and which one will make us safer.
Bush says he's the one because of his post-9/11 leadership and Kerry says it's him because of his service in Vietnam and 20-year Senate career. I can hardly wait for the televised, face-to-face debates between the candidates.
In the end, the voters will answer these questions on Nov. 2. If you don't care enough to vote, however, you should keep your mouth shut about the War On Terrorism and other life and death issues. Don't worry; I'll make those decisions for you. Trust me, I'm a journalist.
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat who is not attending Burning Man (again) this weekend.