With the Kerry campaign in full panic mode about the charges leveled against the candidate by 250 Swift Boat veterans it's time to try to provide some perspective on the confused environment of a bygone era that is now leading to more confusion.
John Kerry graduated from Yale in 1966. George Bush graduated in 1968. I graduated from said institution in 1971. Yale became more strongly anti-war during those years, but Mr. Kerry reflected the campus mood even in 1966 when, as chairman of the Political Union (Yale's most prestigious political debating society), he used his commencement address to criticize America's involvement in Vietnam.
Neither Mr. Kerry nor Mr. Bush nor I wanted to fight in Vietnam, and we all did what we could in our situations: Naval Reserves (Kerry), Texas Air National Guard (Bush), draft lottery #278 (me), which meant immunity from having to serve. In his circumstances Mr. Kerry's choice was smart: Navy or Coast Guard folks were much less likely to see combat service than their counterparts in the Army or Air Force, and the safest Navy spot may have been that of a Naval Reserve officer.
A combination of unlikely circumstances placed Kerry, despite his plans, in a front-line position for three months during 1968 and 1969. How he performed in that situation is now a matter of intense dispute: Having gone through the claims and counterclaims, I suspect he was valiant in one situation, a whiner in others, and an exaggerator (or worse) in more.
Is that a crime? No. It takes a rare person to battle and not tattle, to resist the temptation to solicit praise for combat past. Sure, Bob Dole lost use of an arm during World War II yet did not go around talking repeatedly about how his service made him fit to be president, but Mr. Dole was so trained to avoid the use of "I" that Saturday Night Live could readily parody his third-person accounts of himself.
Should John Kerry be under such unfriendly fire from the Swift Boat vets for receiving Purple Hearts for what they characterize as scratches? No. He had opposed the war for years, found himself immersed in it, and found a way to get out. Sure, a great book and movie, The Right Stuff, show pilot Chuck Yeager with half of his face burned away walking away from a crash uncomplainedly, but Yeager was a living legend because he had such uncommon resolution.
My point, having lived through the 1960s-1970s confusion, is that the era was not one of uncommon resolution at Yale and similar schools, at least not of the patriotic variety. I relished my high draft lottery number. George W. Bush played it smart like John Kerry and found a soft gig. He and I took different rotten paths-he drank heavily, I became a Communist-but both of us could say the same thing: "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible."
The other thing both of us can and do say is that we did not save ourselves: God alone saves sinners (and I can surely add, of whom I was the worst). Being born again, we don't have to justify ourselves. Being saved, we don't have to be saviors.
John Kerry, once-born, apparently has no such spiritual support, nor do most of his top admirers in the heavily secularized Democratic Party. It would be great if he could say, "I was young and vainglorious and often self-absorbed. I exaggerated and lied at times, and since then have thought it necessary not to disavow the fantasies I wove. But I do deserve credit for being there and serving my country in a mixed-up era in which I at times was also mixed-up."
Mr. Kerry can't say that because he evidently does not believe that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. He and his handlers portray him as virtually perfect in the past and omniscient in the present. In and of itself that's also not unusual: It's so hard for a presidential candidate not to get puffed up when laudatory remarks follow him as closely as Secret Service agents. But do we want a president who pretends that he can do no wrong and never has?
What's relevant now is that George Bush did not receive his party's nomination for what he did over three decades ago, but John Kerry did. That's why we need to get to the bottom of what the Swift Boat vets are saying. The original exaggerations or lies are not the problem. The current cover-up attempt is, because that goes to the heart of what kind of president we could expect John Kerry to be.