Vietnam on the GOP scrap heap


Geraldine Sealey
March 25, 2004 1:40AM (UTC)

You might have missed this comment on Tuesday from Bush-Cheney '04's Terry Holt, speaking about Democratic candidate John Kerry, his Vietnam War service, and his nearly two decades in the U.S. Senate: "John Kerry's campaign seems to be summed up this way: I went to Vietnam, yadda, yadda, yadda, I want to be president."

Kerry's spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter, asking for an apology from Holt, retorted: "George Bush's campaign can be summed up this way: 'I lost three million jobs, turned record surpluses into record deficits, denied affordable health care and prescription drug coverage to most Americans, yadda, yadda, yadda, four more years.'"

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All the fun Seinfeld references aside, Holt's comment is quite telling and reveals the about-face Republicans have taken in less than a generation on Vietnam. Billmon has a post worth reading about how Holt's quote was "a kind of political Freudian slip, so to speak. Because it revealed the degree to which the Republicans no longer feel it necessary to pander to (or even show much respect for) those who served in Vietnam."

(I'm just excerpting here, it's more powerful in its entirety.)

From Billmon: "This is a big change from back in the day -- my day, the early '80s, when I first came to Washington. Then the war was still a fresh wound, and the Republicans were gouging it for all it was worth. Fawning over the vets (rhetorically at least), and attacking the left's supposed contempt for them, proved an incredibly effective tactic for the New Right. It allowed them to attack liberals for opposing the war without, at least initially, defending the war itself -- which was still very unpopular."

"Later, of course, as the Republican tide continued to rise, Reagan would become more bold (although never really very bold) and would describe Vietnam as a 'noble cause.' And for at least a few years of that rising tide, nothing was too good for the vets -- as long as it didn't cost too much money. The Reaganites jumped all over symbolic issues like the MIAs (remember Rambo II?) even as they tried (as quietly as possible) to fend off increases in spending for health care and other veterans' services."

"By the time Reagan ran for re-election in 1984, it had become a symbolic orgy -- as Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA became the official unofficial anthem of the Republican Party, and the return and interment of the Unknown Vietnam Soldier took on aspects of a Soviet-style exercise in state necromancy. A few years later, veterans even got their own cabinet department -- the ultimate sign that you've arrived as a Washington interest group. But, time went by, and the old political poison started losing its sting. Clinton survived his encounter with the Vietnam draft 'issue,' but the backwash clearly prompted a lot of Republican hopefuls to reflect on the interesting stories behind their own student deferments. Not the kind of thing that should be turned into a litmus test. You don't hear much of that old 'noble cause' rhetoric from the Republicans any more -- particularly not when Kerry is trying so hard to draw a distinction between his band of brothers and the somewhat less, ah, heroic group around President Bush. After all, the GOP has a new bloody shirt to wave now, a new war to flog. The Vietnam vets are last century's model, ready for the political scrap heap."

" In my mind's eye I have this image of some GOP flack in the year 2032, talking to some smart-ass reporter from the Washington Post, and bashing his guy's opponent for running on his Iraq war resume: 'His whole campaign is: I went to Iraq, yadda, yadda, yadda. I want to be president. Yadda, yadda, yadda.'"

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Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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