"Medalgate"—the inevitable name for the flap over Kerry's flip-floppery about what he did and what he said about his medals—is an amusing spectacle to behold and a story worth investigating.
It's amusing because Kerry has forced himself to offer explanations that make pretzels look straight. It's worth investigating because Kerry has made his service in Vietnam a central qualification for his presidency.
The superficial details of "Medalgate" are fairly easy to explain for anybody not determined to make Kerry sound consistent. From 1971 until about a decade later, Kerry wanted people to think he threw his medals away in protest of Vietnam.
In a 1971 interview, Kerry insisted that he "gave back, I can't remember, six, seven, eight, nine" of his medals. Around 1984, when Kerry ran for the Senate, the times changed and he wanted people to believe he kept the medals and "only" threw away the ribbons. Why? Because his union supporters in particular and voters in general were no longer enamored with the excesses of the anti-war movement.
"It's such a personal thing," he told The Washington Post in 1985. "They're my medals. I'll do what I want with them. And there shouldn't be any expectations about them. It shouldn't be a measurement of anything. People say, 'You didn't throw your medals away.' Who said I had to? And why should I? It's my business. I did not want to throw my medals away."
A decade later, he told The Boston Globe that the only reason he didn't chuck the medals was that he didn't have time to go home and get them.
And this month Kerry told the Los Angeles Times, "I never ever implied that I" threw away the medals.
Because Kerry "flooded the zone" with every possible version of events, it's impossible for him not to contradict himself. His only defense is a screaming offense.
So, he claims that anyone who questions any aspect of his Vietnam service or his anti-Vietnam service either is questioning his patriotism or is part of the "Republican attack machine," including the dyed-in-the-wool liberal producers and hosts of Good Morning America. Indeed, the first time Kerry felt the heat, he dropped his promise not to criticize Bush's National Guard service like a bag of dirt.
But the problem goes much deeper for Kerry because this mini-scandal illustrates the more fundamental contradiction at the core of Kerry's candidacy.
The "argument" (quotation marks are necessary since often it's really a sputter) from Kerry's supporters and the Democratic National Committee is that his service in Vietnam proves that he's strong on defense and qualified to be commander-in-chief. (They also suggest his service proves he is patriotic, manly, cool, sexy and impregnable from criticism.)
The response from his critics (which in fairness often takes the form of a growl) is that whatever Kerry did in Vietnam is vitiated by his anti-war behavior and his long and detailed record of peacenickery in the Senate.
But if signing up for Vietnam proves Kerry's got the right judgment to be commander-in-chief, how come Kerry believes Vietnam was a huge mistake for America?
Think about it. Kerry and DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe have mocked Dick Cheney and other members of the Bush administration for not serving in Vietnam. But Kerry made his political career by saying that Vietnam was a moral and national security disaster. He claims that going to fight for "a mistake" (Kerry's words) was his defining moment. Well, if Vietnam was a mistake, how does it demonstrate Kerry's good judgment?
You might fairly respond that Kerry's decision to fight was an indication not so much of his judgment as of his patriotism. OK, though that's not always Kerry's position. Then again nothing is always Kerry's position.
Plenty of politicians in both parties want to have it both ways on Vietnam. The problem for Kerry is that he's taken such diametrically opposed and ultimately irreconcilable positions on the war.
He wants credit for fighting in what he insists was a criminal war. He even confessed that he and his comrades committed "atrocities," though he hasn't run any commercials bragging about calling his comrades war criminals.
Kerry's position is a mess. He wants credit for throwing away the symbols of his service (the ribbons) and for the service he rendered to earn those medals (which he kept, but claimed until recently he didn't). If that sounds like a contradiction, it should. Because that's what Kerry is: a walking contradiction.
Jonah Goldberg is a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, editor-at-large for the National Review Online and a commentator for CNN. He is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award. You can write to Jonah Goldberg by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com.
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