Prince Hal vs. King Henry

In the course of the past week an odd double standard has emerged in the presidential campaign. Every sentence and gesture of the young John Kerry has been scrutinized -- and often deliberately misinterpreted -- for signs of insincerity, self-promotion, lack of patriotism and fledgling Francophilia.

The sentences and gestures of the young George W. Bush, on the other hand, remain shrouded in obscurity. You don't build a record if you don't show up, and that's exactly what Bush did during the Vietnam War.

The Republicans have subjected Kerry's time in Vietnam to the kind of going-over normally accorded war criminals. Did he really deserve that third Purple Heart? How big, exactly, was that piece of shrapnel that had to be removed from his left arm?

We could, I suppose, ask an equivalent question of Bush, but only if they awarded Purple Hearts for paper cuts incurred in the campaign headquarters of the Republican Senate candidate for whom Bush worked during the year he was supposed to be serving with the Air National Guard in Alabama.

Kerry's leadership of Vietnam veterans who opposed the war has also come under attack. Last week a gang of Republican congressmen took to the House floor to charge that Kerry had undermined the war effort and betrayed his comrades in arms. "What he did was nothing short of aiding and abetting the enemy," said Texas Rep. Sam Johnson, who then took to calling Kerry "Hanoi John."

What Kerry did, in actuality, was provide a forceful voice and prudent guidance to a movement of angry men who had sacrificed for their country in a war that, by 1971, no longer had a plausible purpose but nonetheless continued to rage. By the time Kerry appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and posed his memorable question -- "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" -- it was plain that no one in the Nixon administration really believed that the war could be won.

The war not only dragged on, however, but Nixon expanded it to Cambodia (a decision that predictably destabilized the regime of Prince Norodom Sihanouk and in turn helped bring the Khmer Rouge to power). A number of antiwar activists, veterans among them, responded with a kind of crazed desperation, proposing increasingly confrontational actions. Like many antiwar leaders of the time, Kerry was fighting a two-front war: against the administration in the court of public opinion but also against those of his comrades who wanted to direct the movement into self-destructive spasms of rage.

It was precisely because Kerry's impulses were so mainstream that the Nixon White House feared him. Nixon didn't sit around with his goon squad of Bob Haldeman and Chuck Colson plotting against Kerry because they thought Kerry was Hanoi John. On the contrary, Kerry had to be taken down because his patriotism was so glaringly obvious.

He had, after all, joined the service despite the grave doubts -- to which he gave voice in his Yale class oration in the spring of 1966 -- he harbored about the war. He had thrown himself in harm's way repeatedly while skippering "swift boats" in the Mekong Delta. He had worked to build an effective, law-abiding antiwar movement. Such men were dangerous.

There are days in this campaign when Kerry must think he's still up against Nixon and his thugs. The same slanders that Dick and his boys cooked up then -- Kerry as dangerous radical, Kerry as inauthentic liberal -- are being served up now by Nixon's ethical heirs.

Did Kerry make mistakes during his years in the antiwar movement? Sure he did, beginning with his studied (but clumsy) ambiguity about the fate of his medals and ribbons. But what is the standard we judge him by? When Kerry was fighting in Vietnam, and then fighting to change a disastrous policy at home, Bush had become the invisible man to his fellow aviators in the National Guard; Dick Cheney had, by his own admission, "other priorities" than the war and picked up four separate draft deferments, and junior exterminator Tom DeLay was risking life and limb in a daily battle against termites. Bush, in his own words, was "young and irresponsible," and Kerry all but reeked of responsibility. Bush was Prince Hal and Kerry King Henry and, when it comes to maturity of judgment, they remain so to this day.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large. This story originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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