"That flag is our flag"

Veterans, led by war heroes Wesley Clark and Max Cleland, charge out of the trenches in Boston for John Kerry.

Published July 26, 2004 8:38PM (EDT)

As John Kerry positions himself as a viable alternative to George W. Bush in a time of war abroad and amid fears of terrorism at home, he's wrapping his party in imagery that might fit more comfortably at the Republican National Convention next month. There are Americans flags almost everywhere in Boston, and veterans for Kerry everywhere else.

The big-ticket daytime event Monday was the Democrats' first-ever Veterans Caucus. Minutes after the Black Caucus wrapped up in the Grand Ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel, a sea of red, white and blue patriots filled -- and overfilled -- the room for a salute to those who have served. It began with white-gloved firefighters singing "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America," segued into a long, flag-draped video montage of veterans, including shots of Kerry in Vietnam, and then continued with the introduction of former Clinton advisor Jim Carville -- that's "former Marine Corporal James Carville" to you -- who in turn introduced a panel of Kerry's Swift boat crew mates.

Then came the national anthem. And then came the Pledge of Allegiance.

If John Ashcroft had stepped to the stage for a round of "Let the Eagle Soar," he wouldn't have seemed entirely out of place. Instead, the veterans were given retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who Carville said will make "major contributions in the John Kerry administration."

Clark's speech -- when he wasn't making inside Army-Navy jokes -- made it clear that the Kerry campaign intends to run right at Bush on war and terrorism, the only area where the president still holds polling advantages over his challenger. Clark acknowledged repeatedly that America is "at war." But that's not a reason to stick with the current administration, he said. It's time to "change horses midstream."

"There's another party out there, and they would have you believe that they're the best qualified to keep America safe and secure," Clark said. "I'm here to say it's not so."

In a building riff that brought veterans to their feet, Clark said: "That flag is our flag. We served under that flag. We got up and stood reveille formation, we stood taps, we fought under that flag. We've seen men die for that flag, and we've seen men buried under that flag. No Dick Cheney or John Ashcroft or Tom DeLay is going to take that flag away from us."

Clark's fiery performance knocked the GOP-style stuffing out of the veterans' event, turning it into a Bush-bashing barnburner. By the time Carville reclaimed the stage he was in full sputtering ragin' Cajun mode. "I know the Kerry people back there are having a heart attack," Carville said. "They're saying, 'There goes Carville, the mad dog, the pit bull.'"

But that didn't stop him. "Let me tell you something," Carville said in a sudden moment of quiet directness. "John Kerry is a better man than George W. Bush. I'm talking man to man. Man to man, it ain't even close."

It was an electrifying moment for the veterans in the room, even if Carville's ad hominem attack doesn't fit within Kerry's "Stronger America" theme. And by the time Carville was done, there was no chance of getting it back. Former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who lost limbs in Vietnam, lost an election thanks to Republican smears questioning his patriotism, and who now serves as the emotional center of the Kerry campaign, closed the deal with veterans by following Carville's charge.

As Cleland articulated it, Kerry's bid for the veterans' vote runs along two tracks. First, as someone who has seen combat up close, he'll use troops only as a last resort. Second, as someone his supporters call a "veterans' veteran," he'll ensure that soldiers who do serve will get the benefits they need when they return home.

Cleland contrasted Kerry's vow with Bush's record. "You don't create a shooting war and close veterans' hospitals," Cleland told the crowd. "You don't avoid the war of your generation and then send another to die."

Earlier in the event, one of Kerry's Swift boat "brothers" vowed that, if Kerry called them for one last mission and said they were going to hell, "he'd have a full crew."

Cleland took it one step further with harsh commentary on the incumbent and confident predictions for the future. "We're not going to hell," he said. "We've been to hell. Now we're going to the White House."

For veterans like Peter MacDonald, the event was emotional and profound, a clear sign that they are now officially welcome in a Democratic Party that has often, in the post-Vietnam world, held the military at arm's length. MacDonald, a 57-year-old Connecticut resident who's looking for full-time work after being laid off by a defense contractor, served in the Army in the jungles of Vietnam. Outside the veterans event Monday, the man in the blue blazer and American Legion cap needed a moment to collect himself before talking -- it was a "sensitive area," he said, in the awkward vocabulary of tough guys who find themselves talking about their feelings.

Once MacDonald started, he found it hard to stop. He used to vote Republican, he said, but he watched as the religious right took his party away from him. Now he's an independent, in the process of registering as a Democrat, and he'll vote for Kerry in November. He knows that the Democrats are pandering to him on some level, and he knows that they're using veterans like him -- that having veterans vouch for Kerry will help the Democrats win over other voters who are wary of Bush but more wary still of changing leaders in the middle of a dangerous time. MacDonald says he doesn't mind.

"You want to use us? No problem," MacDonald said. "Why? Because he'll get us out of this damned mess in Iraq. He knows we shouldn't be there. He doesn't want any more Vietnams."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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John F. Kerry