Vice President Cheney reached back decades into John F. Kerry's life Wednesday night, arguing in taunting language that the Democratic presidential nominee has demonstrated through his public statements and votes that he is unfit to be commander in chief in an age of terrorism.
"History has shown that a strong and purposeful America is vital to preserving freedom and keeping us safe -- yet time and again Senator Kerry has made the wrong call on national security," Cheney told the Republican National Convention, on a night when President Bush arrived in the city to prepare for his address Thursday.
Reciting a litany of what he called misguided actions over the years by Kerry, Cheney started with a comment the Democrat made while in his twenties, saying that he wanted U.S. service members deployed "only at the directive of the United Nations," and ended with his recent comment that he would be "more sensitive" to the concerns of allies in the war against terrorism.
Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia, who abandoned his party to give the Republican keynote address, used the same themes to deliver a bristling attack on Kerry. His voice booming and his face twisted into a countenance of contempt and anger, the senator said that "Kerry would let Paris decide when America need defending; I want Bush to decide."
With invective that thrilled roaring partisans inside Madison Square Garden, the man who gave the Democratic keynote address in this same hall 12 years ago accused Democrats of putting partisanship over patriotism out of a "manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief." Miller added that in Iraq, "today's democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator."
Cheney was calmer in manner but scarcely less contemptuous of Kerry as he framed the election as a historic choice on "the question of America's role in the world."
"He talks about leading a more sensitive war on terror, as though al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side," Cheney jeered, to laughter and boos in the convention hall.
"USA! USA! USA!" chanted the convention audience in mid-speech. Later, in response to Cheney's charge that Kerry has switched positions on the Iraq war, the chant changed: "Flip-flopper! Flip-flopper! Flip-Flopper!"
After pausing for the chants, Cheney continued leveling his thrusts against the Democrat: "Senator Kerry denounces American action when other countries don't approve -- as if the whole object of our foreign policy were to please a few persistent critics."
Kerry, who voted to authorize force in Iraq but against Bush's request to fund the aftermath, gave his answer to the issues raised at the podium even before the evening began. Speaking to an American Legion convention in Nashville, he said he would have "done almost everything differently," including recruiting allies to make the post-invasion phase of the operation more successful.
The theme for the convention's penultimate night was "Land of Opportunity," designed to tout the administration's economic plans and make the case that prosperity is returning. But the theme of fear -- of the prospect of terrorism, and of the Kerry's alleged inability to fight it -- remained by far the dominant note from the podium.
Wednesday's speeches fit clearly within what Bush campaign operatives have described as the president's strategy of overcoming what polls register as disaffection with the economy and Iraq by arguing that Kerry is an unacceptable alternative. Democrats, taken aback by the ferocity of the night's rhetoric, acknowledged that this would work if the public believes the string of indictments against them issued from the podium. Giving the United Nations a veto over deployment of U.S. forces is not Kerry's position now nor has it been any time as an elected official.
The Democratic hope was that the vitriol, especially from Miller, will strike voters as excessive and not credible. "Zellephant Gone Wild!" read a release from the Democratic National Committee.
The Georgia senator has in the past year regularly denounced his party, though as recently as three years ago he introduced Kerry to a Georgia fundraising dinner as a Vietnam War veteran and "one of this nation's authentic heroes."
At his speech here, Miller noted Kerry's antiwar activities in the 1970s and various Senate votes against weapons systems, then crowed: "This is the man who wants to be commander in chief of our U.S. armed forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?"
Democrats said Miller's willingness to speak at conventions nominating Bill Clinton and Bush proves the opportunism and inconsistency that Republicans accuse Kerry of. But Miller cast his appearance as one of principle: "I ask which leader it is today that has the vision, the willpower, and, yes, the backbone to best protect my family," he said. "The clear answer to that question has placed me in this hall with you tonight. For my family is more important than my party."
Campaign operatives struck the anti-Kerry theme even harder away from the podium. The president's top political strategist, White House senior adviser Karl Rove, endorsed one of the key lines of attack being pursued by an independent group airing ads questioning Kerry's Vietnam War service and his leadership of the antiwar movement afterward.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Rove said Kerry's 1971 speech asserting that delinquent leadership resulted in widespread atrocities by U.S. service members in Vietnam was "painting with far too broad a brush to tarnish the records and service of people defending our country and fighting communism and doing what they thought was right."
Two Kerry surrogates, former Democratic senators and Vietnam War veterans Max Cleland and Bob Kerrey, said Rove's comments indicated he was acting in league with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and should resign from the White House. Bush has said he admires Kerry's war service and opposes the campaign spending of the "527" independent groups, but he has refused to condemn their specific charges. The harshest of these allegations, that Kerry won combat decorations for occasions when he was not under fire, have been contradicted by official records and undermined by inconsistent statements from some of those making the charges.
But the apparent message from the Bush campaign Wednesday was that some allegations by the Swift boat veterans are raising legitimate questions and require no apology.
In addition to Rove's comments, former representative Vin Weber (Minn.), an adviser to the Bush campaign, said the controversy is reshaping the race, to Bush's clear advantage. "This is central," Weber said during a breakfast meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors. "This is who John Kerry is and his fundamental fitness to lead the country. That's why it is having such a devastating impact, and that's why it's such a radioactive topic."
"We may look back and say this is the most significant phenomenon of this election," Weber said.
Cheney's appearance here, following long speculation over whether he has been a drag on the ticket and even whether he might choose not to seek reelection, was infused with considerably more significance than a typical convention address by a vice president. Cheney was a principal sponsor of the administration's confrontation with Iraq, and one of the most vigorous proponents of the assertion that Saddam Hussein's government presented an imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction and that he had important links with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network. In the wake of the war, no strong evidence has emerged for either assertion. This means that in defending his boss, Cheney was more than any vice president in recent decades also defending himself.
The vice president did not delve into details of Iraq policy, or make a sustained argument about the administration's reasoning on the path to war. (About 140,000 U.S. service members are still in Iraq supporting a new government.) Instead, he said, the new status quo is a clear improvement, and sends a broader, hopeful message across a dangerous region: "In Iraq, we dealt with a gathering threat, and removed the regime of Saddam Hussein. Seventeen months ago, he controlled the lives and fortunes of 25 million people. Tonight, he sits in jail."
The speech underscored the way the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the Iraq invasion have transformed the Republican ticket's profile. When Cheney spoke four years ago at the GOP convention in Philadelphia, he was widely perceived as a bland-but-reassuring figure, bringing experience to the ticket led by a younger nominee with a much shorter resume. As the wild cheers greeting him Wednesday made clear, he is now viewed quite differently -- a popular figure among the Republican conservative base, even while polls show his popularity is low with the larger electorate.
Cheney spoke in personal and occasionally even rhapsodic terms about the man who put him on the ticket. He called Bush a "man of wisdom and humility" and "loyalty and kindness." Most of all, Cheney called him a man who acts without doubt in the face of challenge.
"The fanatics" who attacked on Sept. 11, Cheney said, "may have thought they could attack us with impunity -- because terrorists had done so previously. . . . They did not know America, and they did not know George W. Bush."
Cheney said the example of Bush's forceful action made other tyrants fearful and brought them to heel. He cited the decision by Libya's Moammar Gaddafi to give up his mass-weapons program. But various commentators, including a former senior Bush official, have said that decision was a consequence of diplomacy unrelated to the Iraq war.
After speaking, Cheney was joined on stage by his wife, Lynne, who introduced him, and daughter Liz. His other daughter, Mary, controversial because she is a lesbian, did not join them -- by her own choice, Republicans said.
While Cheney and Miller abandoned the evening's announced theme in favor of deriding Kerry, several speakers largely stuck to it, even if they did not appear in the one-hour window major broadcast networks devoted to convention coverage. Rep. Rob Portman, from the electorally pivotal state of Ohio, acknowledged manufacturing sector problems have made times "tough" in his state but noted that the state has gained several thousand manufacturing jobs this year, compared with a loss of 33,000 in the last year of the Clinton administration. Other speakers included Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and radio talk show host Michael Reagan, the son of the late president. Reagan's appearance preceded a video tribute to Ronald Reagan, after which conventioneers waved signs saying "Win one for the Gipper."
Protesters outside the hall Wednesday also stuck to domestic issues. Waving pink slips, they formed a three-mile human chain designed to represent a dole line of people who lost jobs under Bush. Later in the day, one protester made it past security and into the hall but was hauled off while Cheney was speaking.
Bush arrived in New York in the early evening and was to tap into Sept. 11 imagery immediately by visiting firefighters and supporters at a community center in the Elmhurst section of Queens, with video beamed back for delegates at Madison Square Garden. He was celebrating a major endorsement announced hours earlier from the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, which represents 20,000 active and retired firefighters.
Bush spent the morning working on his acceptance speech at the White House and detoured to Columbus, Ohio, to speak to a campaign rally that drew 21,000 to a hockey arena. Bush said his acceptance speech Thursday night would provide a vision for "a safer world and a more hopeful America." He waved and left the arena to a booming version of "New York, New York."