Zinni for vice president?

Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni is a harsh critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy.Kathy Willens / AP file
/ Source: msnbc.com

He's not yet in the top ranks of contenders in speculation about Sen. John Kerry’s vice presidential pick, but retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni is very much a favorite of some Washington insiders.

At the end of an appearance by Zinni before the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Tuesday night, the event’s host, Washington power broker, Aspen Institute president, and former CNN head Walter Isaacson turned to Zinni, a registered Republican, and suggested that Kerry might call him and say, “You should run with me on a ticket of national unity.”

The audience of 200 retired State Department officials, Washington lawyers, and foreign policy think tank experts burst into applause.

Zinni replied, “I’m not interested in any political office in either party.” When Isaacson persisted, Zinni said, “Do you have trouble with the ‘N’ or the ‘O’?”

Thinking in line with Isaacson, the regular panel of journalists on the Chris Matthews weekend show two weeks ago suggested Zinni as one whose name ought to be in play as a Kerry running mate.

And Zinni is showing on his current national book tour qualities that would make him a credible running mate: He’s tough-minded, pragmatic, lucid, and very much in command of the details of defense and foreign policy.

Zinni served as commander in chief of U.S. Central Command from August 1997 to July 2000, with responsibility for a region from Ethiopia to Afghanistan.

Early in the Bush administration, he served as President Bush’s special ambassador to the Middle East.

He joined the Marines in 1961 and was wounded in combat during the Vietnam War.

Indictment of Iraq policy
In recent interviews and his new book, “Battle Ready,” written with Tom Clancy, Zinni charges that in the preparation for the Iraq war and in its conduct there has been “dereliction, negligence, and irresponsibility; at worst lying, incompetence and corruption” by officials in the Bush administration.

He has called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other top civilian officials at the Pentagon to quit or be fired.

Zinni told his Washington audience Tuesday night that American troops not only deserve the best equipment and training but “we also owe them the rationale for putting their lives at risk; we owe them to ensure that the intelligence and the rationale is credible, that the strategy under which we are committing them is sound, that the planning that goes into this from our civilian leadership is competent and sound. ... Frankly, I did not see this (in Iraq).”

Zinni added, “I bitterly feel that we let down those great young men and women.”

Prompted by Isaacson, Zinni said that by “we” he meant Rumsfeld and his deputies at the Defense Department. “History will hold them responsible,” Zinni said.

Bush responsible?
He did not directly address the issue of whether he thinks Bush himself is responsible for the current situation in Iraq, but he did use some of Kerry’s rhetoric about a “rush to war” in Iraq.

When one member of Tuesday night's audience, former Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Jim Moody, asked Zinni whether Harry Truman's dictum of "the buck stops here" shouldn't apply to Bush, Zinni repeated that the responsibility belongs "in the Pentagon, (to) civilians in the Pentagon."

Zinni regularly draws a parallel between his experience in Vietnam and what U.S. soldiers are enduring in Iraq.

“Many of my contemporaries had our feelings and our sensitivities forged on the battlefields of Vietnam, where we heard the garbage and the lies, and we saw the sacrifice,” he told a gathering of Marine and Navy officers last September. “We swore never again would we allow it to happen. I ask you, is it happening again?”

Zinni’s book tour has given him enviably wide media exposure at precisely the right moment, as Kerry is mulling over his choice of a running mate.

Most of those prominent in the vice presidential speculation — North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh — share one quality that is both an advantage and a disadvantage: They are polished and familiar politicians. They would be safe choices, perhaps too safe to stir intense excitement.

Were Kerry to choose Zinni, it would reveal a penchant for the unconventional in the Democratic contender.

Apart from his bullet-proof national security credentials, Zinni would bring two other strengths to the ticket:

  • As a combat veteran and career Marine, Zinni could go a long way toward repairing the Democrats’ chronic shortfall with male voters. Exit poll interviews from the 2000 presidential election indicated that male voters opted for Bush over Al Gore 53 percent to 42 percent.
  • As an Italian-American, Zinni could help Kerry appeal to conservative Italian-American voters in states such as Pennsylvania and Florida. The first Italian-American candidate on a national ticket, Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, was identified more as the historic first woman than as an Italian-American. She and Walter Mondale were crushed in the Reagan landslide.

Choosing Zinni would entail risks for Kerry. Zinni has spent time on the lecture circuit and on television news interviews, but is untested in the crucible of a national campaign.

Praise for Bush
A bigger problem for a Kerry-Zinni “dream ticket” is that Zinni endorsed Bush in 2000 and said as recently as last week that he would “probably” vote for Bush again.

In his interview with Chris Matthews on Hardball, Zinni praised Bush as “strong leader” and “a man of strong character,” who Zinni said, had been misled by Pentagon officials into launching the Iraq war.

But Zinni has also said he could not vote for Bush this November if the president does not dismiss Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and their team at the Defense Department.

So far, interest in the Kerry-Zinni scenario appears to be confined to journalists and to members of the Washington elite such as Isaacson.

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Scott Maddox said Tuesday he had not heard Zinni mentioned by Democrats in his state. Maddox said he favors his state’s senior senator, Bob Graham, as the vice presidential candidate.

New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan said she has heard no Zinni “buzz” in the Granite State.

Sullivan also wondered about Zinni’s stands on issues other than national security. “I’m not sure where the rest of Zinni’s politics are,” she said.

And Sullivan questioned the call for a bipartisan “national unity” ticket, which is fueling the recent speculation about Kerry asking Zinni or Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to serve as his running mate.

While unity is a laudable goal, Sullivan said, “Do we achieve it by having the Democratic Party say ‘we will yield’? It doesn’t make sense to sacrifice the rest of the Democratic Party program when you have very qualified Democrats out there (as potential running mates) who could serve that same purpose.”

Sullivan’s personal favorite for vice president is Edwards.