Bush and McCain walk together toward Air Force one
Kevin Lamarque  /  Reuters
McCain is up for re-election in Arizona, and needs every Republican vote he can get. Joining the president on campaign trips like this one on Aug. 11 to New Mexico and his home state can help.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/23/2004 6:22:44 PM ET 2004-08-23T22:22:44

Sen. John McCain's aides told me that he was on a trip to Latvia, Ukraine and Norway when the latest battle in The War over the War over the War erupted. From their point of view, it wasn't a bad thing that the boss was away. For by trying to keep the peace — to keep the war in Vietnam from being refought yet again — the senator from Arizona risks getting pinned down in a crossfire during this vicious season. By the time he gets back things may have settled down a bit, though I doubt it. This is getting ugly.

I went on vacation the other week and am back to see my beat (national politics) at least temporarily consumed by events that took place more than three decades ago. It's weird. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, American society was torn apart by the political war over the Vietnam War. Now there's a third war, over who was right or wrong back then, and over who has the moral authority to speak on the topic to begin with.

The questions were and are: Who has the right to speak for and to the American fighting man and woman? Who has the right stuff — neither war hawk nor pacifist — to be trusted to wisely deploy our military might?

Whether or not the presidential candidate himself served in the military didn't used to be relevant to these questions. In one way or another, almost everyone served. That was the way of the world. But among Baby Boomers, and those who are following them, a record of military service is more the exception than the rule — and so the story of whether you "went," and what you did when you were there, is of greater weight.

Kerry made his own war story the central metaphor of the Democratic convention and of his campaign. Remember his salute at the start of his acceptance speech? Remember the parade of Swift Boat vets who support him? Remember the Spielbergian movie showing the bullets dancing across the waters of the Mekong Delta? The party platform said little new or startling, and Kerry spent next to no time in his speech talking about his 19-year career in the Senate. It was all about him, and the implicit argument that even though he is not now commander-in-chief, he is more qualified for the job than the not-always-present-and-accounted-for Texas Air National Guardsman who has had the conn in the White House for nearly four years.

Which was all the excuse the attack dogs — and, by the weekend, former Sen. Bob Dole — needed. McCain condemned the first ad aired by "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," calling it dishonest and dishonorable and calling on President Bush to condemn it, which Bush did on Monday — sort of. But McCain doesn't want to get crosswise with the president for several reasons. McCain is up for re-election in Arizona and needs every Republican vote he can get. McCain generally backs the president's approach to the war on terrorism in general and the war in Iraq in particular. McCain still may want to run for the GOP nomination again, and he needs to be seen doing his duty by the party and its incumbent president.

But while McCain is away, he is becoming a bigger player in the controversy. First, Democrats are citing his experiences in the 2000 GOP nomination race as evidence that Bush has a habit of attacking the military bona fides of his foes — in McCain's case, whether the senator had somehow abandoned the needs of veterans here at home. McCain was outraged by the accusation, raised in the South Carolina primary, and demanded that Bush denounce the effort by what were described as an "independent" veterans group there. Bush never did so. What Bush did to McCain, Bush has been doing to Kerry, the Democrats alleged.

Having spoken up once before, will McCain agree with the Democrats on that point?

And now the Swift Boat boys are back, this time with an ad focusing on Kerry's record as an antiwar activist after his return, especially his (still) controversial accusation before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 that Americans in Vietnam had committed atrocities and war crimes there. Many vets loathe Kerry for those statements. 

Having spoken up once before, will McCain condemn this second ad? I'm told that McCain will  stick to his basic formulation — that he doesn't want to "reopen the wounds of Vietnam." But they are already open and won't heal until the Boomers fade from the scene.

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