Less than 48 hours after Bill Clinton, speaking from his hospital room, advised the politically ailing John Kerry to start talking less about Vietnam and more about health care, seven American marines were blown up outside Fallujah. So much for the pipedream of changing the subject of this election. Vietnam keeps popping out of America's darkest closet not just because Mr. Kerry conspicuously served there and Mr. Bush conspicuously did not, but because of what's happening half a world away in real time: a televised war in Iraq that resembles its Southeast Asian predecessor in its unpopularity, its fictional provocation and its unknown exit strategy. That war isn't going anywhere by Nov. 2, even as it is sporadically obscured by Florida storm clouds, and its Vietnam undertow isn't going anywhere either. Everyone knows that a Tet offensive, Sunni-style, could yet tilt this election in a direction unknown.
But while Vietnam cannot be escaped, that hasn't stopped both men from working overtime in their fruitless efforts to escape it. Their motives could not be more different: George W. Bush doesn't want quagmire analogies to Iraq, and Mr. Kerry doesn't want a referendum on his own Vietnam history. Yet weirdly enough, their strategies have been identical: they've each tried to deflect Vietnam by turning back the clock to World War II. They hope to bask in the reflected glory of a good war that had been transformed into a nostalgia craze in the "Saving Private Ryan" era of American pop culture just before 9/11.
Thus President Bush's acceptance speech, which included yet another of his Reagan-lite efforts to wrap himself in Normandy, was heralded by invocations of F.D.R. from nearly every speaker: Laura Bush, Tommy Franks, Zell Miller and Dick Cheney, who went so far as to inform us that he and Roosevelt share the same birthday. (Rudy Giuliani one-upped them all by equating Mr. Bush with Churchill.) Of course these World War II flashbacks had to come to a screeching halt before identifying the present Hitler, Osama bin Laden. To take the analogy that far would be to remind the audience that we had diverted troops and money from the essential war against al Qaeda and Islamic fanaticism to open an optional second front against Iraq's secular despot.
For Mr. Kerry, the World War II theatrics were just as tricky. The martial panoply of his convention culminated in his using "band of brothers" and "greatest generation" twice each in his acceptance speech — a patent effort to inoculate service in a controversial war with phrases that, courtesy of HBO and Tom Brokaw, have become our culture's indelible brand for World War II's unambiguous heroism. The Democrats' hope was that no one would think about what happened after the Vietnam band of brothers came home and split apart, at which point Mr. Kerry's antiwar role pushed him into closer proximity to My Lai than Iwo Jima.
The bait-and-switch substitution of World War II for Vietnam quickly proved a bridge too far for both candidates. Just when they thought they had fled Vietnam, it returned, whacking them in the face like a perpetually revolving door. No sooner did Mr. Kerry's convention end than he was impaled by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. No sooner did the Republicans leave New York than word got out that "60 Minutes" was poking anew into the president's National Guard stint, a Pandora's box of unanswered questions first unlocked by The Boston Globe four years ago. Now there's a "Texans for Truth" ad campaign trailing him in mimicry of the Swifties.
The next explosive chapter in the unstoppable Vietnam narrative will be unveiled Tuesday night, when the documentary "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry" has its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, in a country that is itself synonymous with anti-Vietnam protest. This is the movie made by George Butler, a Kerry friend for four decades, and inspired in part by Douglas Brinkley's "Tour of Duty," the adulatory biography that boomeranged by launching a thousand negative media bites on the Kerry war record. Though early reports suggested that Mr. Butler would concentrate on Mr. Kerry's present campaign as well as his past, that's not how the finished film turned out. "Going Upriver," made without Mr. Kerry's involvement, is all Vietnam all the time. It opens on some 200 screens across the United States on Oct. 1 — the morning after the first scheduled presidential debate.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company