Medals Don't Make a President

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In the middle of a war — or is it a war? — almost an entire Presidential briefing is taken up with the question of how many times a 26-year-old George W. Bush showed up in Alabama for National Guard duty more than 30 years ago.

Crazy. There is not the slightest doubt that if, say, John Edwards were the Democratic front runner, the issue would be considered an irrelevance. Indeed, during the months when Howard Dean was the front runner, it never came up. It comes up now only because the Democrats have providentially made John Kerry, war hero, their presumptive nominee.

For 2 1/2 years since 9/11, the Democrats have been adrift on national security. With Kerry, they have finally stumbled their way onto an answer: "We still have no answer, but we have a man with an unimpeachable military record. What have you got?"

The Democrats want to make the issue one of biography. It is, after all, no contest. Kerry has his Vietnam medals; Bush can barely produce his National Guard pay stubs.

Two years ago, biography was not enough. The Democrats got slaughtered in that election campaign because the President had a plan for the post-Sept. 11 world — a forward strategy of war abroad and homeland-security reorganization at home — and the Democrats had nothing.

Democratic Senator Max Cleland, another genuine war hero, was defeated in Georgia after he and other Senate Democrats had held up the establishment of the Homeland Security Department because of union rules. Democrats bitterly complained that Cleland's patriotism had been questioned. But it was not a matter of patriotism; it was a matter of seriousness: when crazed jihadists are flying airplanes into American buildings, the usual rules — including union rules — are suspended.

The Democrats simply did not understand that. They lost big. In 2002, past heroism was not enough. In 2004, it might just be. Why? Because Sept. 11 is fading.

The memory is still present enough in the national consciousness that the country demands someone minimally serious about national security. Dean collapsed because when people took a close look at him, he failed the midnight, red-phone, finger-on-the-button test. But the memory of Sept. 11 is now distant enough that, unlike in 2002, biography alone might be enough to meet the "seriousness" test.

Lucky for the Democrats. It is hard to see what Kerry has to offer beyond biography. The issue of our time is the war on terrorism. Bush's strategy throws out the old playbook on terrorism — the cops-and-robbers, law-and-order strategy of arrest and trial followed by complacency — and takes the war to the enemy. Kerry says terrorism is "primarily an intelligence and law-enforcement operation" — precisely the misconception that had us waking up on Sept. 12 realizing that while the enemy was preparing for war, we were preparing legal briefs for grand juries.

And where did Kerry stand on the most critical national-security questions of the past two decades? In 1991 he voted against the Gulf War, which he now says he was in favor of. Twelve years later, he voted in favor of the Iraq war, which he now tells us he was against. Then he voted against the $87 billion for reconstruction and troop support while telling us that of course he supports both the reconstruction and the troops.

War hero he is. But a man of so many pirouettes hardly inspires confidence as a resolute President. That should not surprise us. The very idea that national service, even heroic service, necessarily correlates with great presidential leadership is simply irrational. By that logic, Douglas MacArthur would have made a great President. By that logic, Ulysses S. Grant was a great President. (It's not just an American phenomenon: the most decorated veteran in Israel's history, Ehud Barak, was a disastrous Prime Minister.) Even more impressive is the fact that two of the greatest war Presidents in American history — Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt — had military backgrounds that make Bush's look distinguished: Lincoln, minimal (less than half a year of militia duty); Roosevelt, none.

Kerry tells his campaign audiences how, as a returning Vietnam vet, he stood up to the waste and carnage and injustice of what he calls "Nixon's war." All true, except for one inconvenient fact. The man who got us into Vietnam — committing what is arguably the most egregious presidential misjudgment of the 20th century — was not Nixon. It was Kerry's political hero, John F. Kennedy: Ivy League, U.S. Navy, decorated officer whose wartime valor propelled him to Massachusetts Senator and then Democratic candidate for President of the United States. Sound familiar? So much for biography.