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JOAN VENNOCHI

The caveat emperor

AT THIS POINT it comes as no surprise. John Kerry is releasing all his military records -- but then again, he isn't.

During an interview yesterday with Globe editorial writers and columnists, the former Democratic presidential nominee was asked if had signed Form SF 180, authorizing the Department of Defense to grant access to all his military records.

''I have signed it," Kerry said. Then, he added that his staff was ''still going through it" and ''very, very shortly, you will have a chance to see it."

The devil is usually in the details. With Kerry, it's also in the dodges and digressions. After the interview, Kerry's communications director, David Wade, was asked to clarify when Kerry signed SF 180 and when public access would be granted. Kerry drifted over to join the conversation, immediately raising the confusion level. He did not answer the question of when he signed the form or when the entire record will be made public.

Several e-mails later, Wade conveyed the following information: On Friday, May 20, Kerry obtained a copy of Form 180 and signed it. ''The next step is to send it to the Navy, which will happen in the next few days. The Navy will then send out the records," e-mailed Wade. Kerry first said he would sign Form 180 when pressed by Tim Russert during a Jan. 30 appearance on ''Meet the Press."

Six months after Kerry's loss to George W. Bush, it feels somewhat gratuitous to point out how hard it can be to get a clear, straight answer from Kerry on this and other matters. But as long as the Massachusetts senator is thinking about another presidential run, the candor gap remains on the table, because he puts it there.

On one hand, he seems to have concluded that Democrats have a ''branding" problem, much like a company selling razor blades. The Democratic Party, said Kerry, needs ''a new brand. That's the challenge." For 25 years, he said, Democrats did not fight negative branding by their opponents. As a result, he said, Democrats are now labelled as ''tax, spend, weak, things like that."

Later, Kerry said, ''Let me be crystal clear. We do not have to reformulate or redefine the Democratic Party. I'm tired of hearing that the Democratic Party doesn't stand for anything." The party, he said, stands for healthcare for every single American; public education that works and gets the necessary resources, with strict accountability; foreign policy that demonstrates both strength and respect for multinationalism; a tax structure that is fair; protecting the environment, and energy independence.

However, Republicans successfully directed the 2004 contest to other issues, including the war on terror, gay marriage, and abortion. Kerry now stands as close to Bush as he can on those issues.

On Iraq, Kerry basically endorsed the outcome of the Bush Doctrine, saying: ''I do think we're making a kind of progress, slowly but surely."

Asked about gay marriage, he explained that he and George Bush hold the same position -- for civil unions. And he noted that he is supporting Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey Jr. -- ''what they call a prolife candidate" -- against incumbent Republican Senator Rick Santorum.

Kerry said that people don't want to ''go back to coat hangers and back alleys," or put ''moms in jail and doctors." Then he pointed out the alternatives that Democrats, following in the footsteps of New York Senator Hillary Clinton, now take pains to embrace -- adoption, prevention, and abstinence.

The twists and turns of the past campaign still elicit bursts of passionate analysis. He continues to attribute Bush's success to a combination of voter indifference to the truth and the Republicans' ability to leverage the ''fear factor."

Asked about the impact of religion, he said that he reread the New Testament since the election to make sure ''I didn't miss anything" and recalled that on the campaign trail ''I gave a very strong speech about values and how you measure these things." He believes he lost the ''soccer moms" and ''security moms" to the Osama bin Laden videotape, released the Friday before Election Day.

The campaign waged against him by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth arouses Kerry's greatest passion. ''What they said was untrue," he said. He considered, but decided against, filing suit against the group, which alleged that he did not deserve his Vietnam military honors.

Kerry insists ''The truth in its entirety will come out . . . the truth will come out."

Signing Form 180 is the first step. Releasing his entire military record to the public is the second.

It doesn't get any plainer than that.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.


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