When Sen. John F. Kerry’s advisors indicated recently that his service during the Vietnam War would be central to the campaign’s effort to define him, they weren’t exaggerating.
Kerry’s medal-laden service in Vietnam long has been an integral part of his political persona. But if his performance on the stump this week was any indication, references to his time as a naval officer commanding a swift boat in the Mekong Delta will be a ubiquitous part of the Democrat’s presidential bid.
In one 24-hour period, he invoked his service:
* To fend off attacks by his Republican rivals;
* As evidence he will fight to expand healthcare;
* As evidence he understands the complicated landscape in Iraq;
* To explain his love of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
Kerry’s GOP critics have helped keep the spotlight on his military resume by questioning the validity of one of his Purple Heart medals, challenging the sincerity of his antiwar activities when he returned from Vietnam and suggesting he is weak on national security issues.
The Massachusetts senator has responded aggressively. Tuesday night, he told donors at a fundraiser in Cleveland: “They want you to believe that John Kerry, who put the uniform of his country on voluntarily, who found an obligation to go to Vietnam when so many others didn’t ... they want you to believe that somehow I’m not strong for the defense of our nation. Well, I’ve defended our nation and I’m prepared to stand up and defend it.”
But Kerry often draws attention to his military past, regardless of the matter at hand.
At a UAW hall in Toledo, Ohio, on Wednesday, the candidate opened a discussion on the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs by saying, “As I came in, I bumped into a couple of fellow veterans.... Will all of you who served please raise your hands, just so I can get a sense of it?”
A little later, as he pledged to work to expand healthcare for Americans, Kerry referred to his “band of brothers” -- his favorite phrase for fellow veterans.
“We may be older and we may be grayer today, but I’ll tell you what, we still know how to fight for what’s right for our country,” he said.
A few minutes later, when a man asked about his stance on the Iraq war, Kerry asked if he was a veteran.
“Navy,” the man responded.
“Well, go Navy, that’s me,” Kerry said.
As he answered the question, he compared the chaos in Iraq to “my memories of being in Vietnam, when I carried an M-16 in-country, where we had to try to discover who was friend and who was foe.”
Later, he asked another man if he was wearing a Navy jacket.
“Marine Corps,” was the answer, prompting laughter from the audience.
“That’s a Marine Corps jacket?” Kerry asked, sounding skeptical.
Perhaps the most incongruous mention of his service came as Kerry rode his campaign bus Wednesday with some local officials. The candidate offered his guests peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, a daily staple for him on the road.
His passion for PB&Js;, Kerry told his companions, dated back to Vietnam, where he not only ate them frequently but traded them for other commodities.
The day ended as it began. Late Wednesday, Kerry flew into the Philadelphia airport, where he was greeted by -- of course -- veterans.