Jack Kelly: Kerry's fall from grace

The Swifties only gain from the candidate's anger

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After locking up the Democratic nomination in the primaries last spring, John Kerry took a snowboarding vacation in Idaho. In a run down the mountain, he fell. A reporter joshed him about it. "I don't fall," Kerry snapped. Pointing to a Secret Service agent nearby, Kerry said: "That [expletive deleted] knocked me down."

Jack Kelly is national security writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).

"Sen. John Kerry is angry at the way his campaign has botched the attacks from the Swift boat veterans and has ordered a staff shake-up that will put former Clinton aides in top positions," reported the New York Daily News.

"[Kerry] wanted to go after the Swift boat attacks, but his top aides said no," a "longtime senior Kerry adviser" told the News.

The advice Kerry's senior aides gave him was that he should leave response to the Swifties to surrogates, because Kerry's friends in the major media would do their best to bury the story.

This didn't work, because the story the Swifties wanted to tell got out anyway, through talk radio and dozens of Web logs. But it was good advice. The Swifties didn't really take off in terms of public consciousness until after Kerry went postal on them.

Kerry is taking aboard former Clinton aides Joe Lockhart and Joel Johnson, experts at maligning the women who said Bill Clinton had forced his attentions on them. But efforts to mau-mau the Swifties just keeps the Swifties in the news.

Some Democrats have urged that Kerry assault (again) Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. But this wouldn't answer questions about Kerry's service, and most Americans are more interested in fighting the war on terror than in refighting a war that ended badly nearly three decades ago.

Back in the spring of 2003, when I thought Kerry was the hero he claimed to be, I still thought he was likely to be the weakest of the Democratic candidates in a general election, because he is a poor campaigner and because his record after three terms in the Senate was both lackluster, and decidedly left of center, especially on national security issues.

Kerry was using his war service as insulation against attacks on his voting record. (How dare you criticize my votes on defense. I served in Vietnam! How dare you bring up my flip-flops on Iraq. I served in Vietnam!) But thanks to the Swifties, that insulation has been stripped away.

No sitting senator has been elected president since Kennedy in 1960. This is in large part because there are all those votes in the Congressional Record for opposition researchers to sift through.

GOP consultant Rich Galen thinks there is another reason. Senators have small staffs and no real responsibilities. They do not know how to manage and to delegate, as governors do. Galen thinks Kerry's already top-heavy staff will become more so with the addition of the Clinton people, making decision-making even more sluggish and chaotic.

There is also likely to be more acrimony in the Kerry high command. Campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and other top aides come from the camp of Sen. Ted Kennedy, which is not overfond of the Clintonistas.

Finally, there is the question of loyalty. Hillary's best shot at being president would come in 2008, at the end of a second Bush term.

No staff shake-up can cure the fundamental problem, which is Kerry himself. His aides could not have known whether, or how much Kerry had embellished his Vietnam service, and it was he more than they who chose to make his 4 1/2 months in Vietnam 35 years ago the central rationale for his candidacy for president.

Kerry had to know that he had mightily peeved his shipmates when, in 1971, he accused them and other Vietnam veterans of routinely committing grisly war crimes. It's astounding that he gave no thought earlier to damage control.

The Swifties have said they will fold their tent if he apologizes for his slander, and authorizes release of all of his military records. Kerry had an opportunity to do this at the American Legion convention Sept. 1. But he let the opportunity go by. John Kerry never falls. Everything is always someone else's fault.


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