CRAWFORD, Tex., Aug. 25
The old soldiers came to reenact the Vietnam War here Wednesday on the plains of central Texas.
Their commanding generals: John F. Kerry and President Bush.
Their mission: An exchange of letters.
The result: Pure farce.
The Kerry campaign announced Wednesday morning that it would surprise Bush by sending former senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who lost three limbs in Vietnam, to his ranch here with a letter asking the president to denounce criticism of Kerry's war record. But the Bush campaign got word of the stunt -- perhaps because it was reported on CNN -- and had its own Vietnam veteran waiting for Cleland with a letter defending the criticism of Kerry.
With about 30 journalists watching, the two veterans circled each other in the 95-degree heat at a checkpoint outside the ranch, holding their letters as if they were hand grenades. Then -- without exchanging letters -- the two retreated to face the cameras at a nearby schoolyard, Cleland demanding Bush denounce ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the Bush veteran, identified by the White House as "a representative of the campaign," praising one of the group's ads as "very telling."
Presidential campaigns always have an element of political theater, but Wednesday's showdown by the two campaigns at a bend in Prairie Chapel Road was worthy of Broadway. And the White House press corps, starved for action after a week of inactivity, was a willing audience.
As Cleland's white Cadillac approached the checkpoint near Bush's ranch, a Bush aide signaled another Bush aide, who signaled a third, whereupon a man in a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap and a tie with a shotgun-shell print walked up to meet Cleland.
"I have a letter for the president of the United States, and I'd like to hand it to the Secret Service gentleman here," Cleland announced to the media mob.
The man in the VFW cap, who turned out to be Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, said he would take the letter.
"I'd like to hand it to a responsible official here at the gate," Cleland said.
"Senator, I'm the responsible official," rejoined Patterson.
"I'd like to hand it to a Secret Service gentleman who works for the president of the United States so I make sure it gets to him, please."