Joan Vennochi: Obama's patriotism

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[Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist.]

BARACK OBAMA believes his patriotism can't be challenged. Maybe he should talk to Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry.

'I am absolutely confident that during the general election that when I'm in a debate with John McCain, people are not going to be questioning my patriotism, they are going to be questioning how can you make people's lives a little better,' declared Obama during last week's contentious debate with Hillary Clinton.

Obama wants the race for the White House to be about hope. It probably won't be.

In 1988, Dukakis said the campaign was about 'competence, not ideology.' His opponent, George H.W. Bush, made it all about ideology. The GOP turned Dukakis into a civil liberties-loving elitist who let convicted felons free to strike again.

The attack on Dukakis also zeroed in on his veto of a bill requiring students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Dukakis vetoed the legislation after an advisory opinion from the state supreme court called it unconstitutional. The facts didn't matter. The Massachusetts governor was pounded on the Pledge. At one point during the campaign, a Republican senator also falsely claimed that Kitty Dukakis had burned an American flag during an antiwar demonstration in the 1960s.

In 2000, the GOP opposition mocked Democrat Al Gore's five-month tour of duty in Vietnam as a military journalist. They suggested he enlisted only because his father was a senator from the south and belittled him as a desk jockey. Meanwhile, his Republican opponent, George W. Bush never fully answered questions about how he got a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard, or whether he fulfilled the requirements of his National Guard service.

In 2004, Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, came under attack from fellow veterans who questioned the legitimacy of his combat medals and denounced his past antiwar activities. The smear campaign run by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group funded by the biggest Republican donor in Texas, played a major role in another Democrat's loss to another Bush. The group formed in March 2004, after it was clear Kerry would be the Democratic nominee. In an attack ad that began running on Aug. 5, 13 veterans stated that Kerry is 'not being honest' and 'is lying about his record.'

Kerry didn't respond for two weeks, a delay he blames for his defeat. Democrats now call such attacks 'swift boating.' If Kerry could fall victim to it, so could Obama. The ability to undermine a campaign in that way has nothing to do with logic, fact, or confidence. It would be a shame if the 2008 campaign comes down to Obama's choice to forgo wearing an American flag pin on his lapel - but it could.
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