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Why Kerry Is Fit to Be President

By Bob Kerrey
Saturday, August 14, 2004; Page A21

The former Navy personnel who are attempting to discredit Sen. John Kerry's record of service in Vietnam are doing so to argue that he is unqualified to be commander in chief. Most appear to be angry with him on account of his opposition to the Vietnam War, not his service in it. They have done a better job of damaging the reputation of the U.S. Navy than they have of damaging John Kerry.

Moreover, they ignore what I consider to be the most important qualities any commander in chief must possess. If elected in November, John Kerry will make an exceptionally good commander in chief.

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Citizens may disagree with every other position he has taken in this campaign or they may dislike the legislation he enacted during his nearly two decades of service in the U.S. Senate. But they should have no doubt about his capacity to perform the duties of commander in chief.

For the record, I do not include the fact that Kerry commanded a Swift boat among the main reasons that he will be a good commander in chief. I don't even include the fact that he chose to serve in the military and to go to Vietnam. I am impressed by his service and by the loyalty of the band of brothers who served under his command. And as a Vietnam veteran myself, I do hope that one of our own will make it all the way to the White House before I die.

But at the top of my list of reasons for believing Kerry can and will do this most difficult of jobs is that he has the requisite sympathy for the men and women who give up many of their rights as citizens in order to defend ours. My confidence also comes from knowing that he knows what it's like to have served under leaders who lacked the moral clarity or the political backbone to sustain an effort from beginning to end.

He also understands from personal experience and practice that strong and determined diplomacy can enable the United States to avoid having to send our sons and daughters into harm's way in the first place.

Evidence backs up my claim in each of these three areas. Kerry demonstrated time and again the sympathy I speak of by fighting for veterans' health and educational benefits. Can his opponents cite one instance in which he failed to put his political career on the line for those who have already served?

Long before it became cool to do so, Kerry was arguing that we must take care of our veterans if we are going to be able to enlist the volunteers we need in our military. In the post-Selective Service era, in which fewer and fewer members of Congress or their children have worn the uniform, Kerry's actions on behalf of veterans speak for themselves.

Nothing teaches you how to be a good leader better than having the opportunity to follow. In the military and out, Kerry has had this experience. He knows from personal experience how dependent you are on the person in charge and how essential it is for that person to speak clearly, forcefully and with moral conviction.

He knows how terrible it is to follow someone who is lost -- morally and politically as well as geographically. He knows how vital it is that we sustain whatever it is we begin, and that we support our troops all the way to the end.

He also knows that the troops count on their leader to be a visionary capable of planning for each and every possibility. No soldier, sailor, airman or Marine wants to follow someone who substitutes rosy scenarios for hard-headed calculation of risk. No one wants to follow someone who believes political jargon is more important than detailed planning and execution.

Almost every person in uniform will tell you that the best war is the one we deter because our enemies know we have the capability and will to strike back with relentless and deadly force. It is also the one we prevent because we used our diplomatic and economic muscle to reduce threats before they grew into the real thing.

Again, John Kerry has a tremendous amount of experience working with Republican and Democratic presidents to negotiate and prepare for the peaceful world most of us prefer. In Southeast and Southwest Asia, in the Middle East and in Latin America, Kerry has been involved in some of the most difficult and successful of our bipartisan foreign policy efforts. No one will have to remind him as president that partisan politics should be kept at the water's edge to respect and honor those who continue to serve us.

Tellingly, the attacks on Kerry's war record have been orchestrated in large part by the same Texas publicity firm involved with notorious television advertisements meant to derail the last veteran of the Vietnam War who ran for president, John McCain. Kerry's service in Vietnam was extensively documented by the U.S. Navy, especially in connection with his awards, and has been reviewed numerous times by historians and news organizations.

I was going to end this by calling on President Bush to join McCain in calling for the cessation of this misguided effort to discredit Kerry's service in Vietnam. But fair is fair. There are just as many misguided ads running against President Bush today by these "527" organizations. Unless our campaign finance laws are changed again, U.S. voters are just going to have to figure this one out on their own.

The writer, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, is president of New School University in New York.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company