Conspiracy fans can have a field day if Sen. John Kerry wins the Democratic nomination for president, as it appears at this time he will.

Conspiracy buffs can say that, once more, the Establishment has won. Both the Democrat and the Republican nominees will be Establishment types — both are rich guys, both are Yale graduates, and both are members of the secretive and elitist Skull and Bones club at Yale.

And the outsiders (Howard Dean, John Edwards and Wesley Clark) remain outside.

By now, I’m used to this state of affairs and don’t put a lot of stock in any conspiracy theory. The fact is, it helps a great deal to be a rich guy if you want to run for president. It’s not because rich guys will spend their own money, but rich guys know a lot of other rich guys to put the arm on for contributions.

Several serious sociological studies and books have been written about the upper class in America. It tends to be remarkably self-contained. For the most part, upper-class kids go to the same private prep schools and the same universities, join the same clubs, visit the same resorts and hang out at the same watering holes. Finally, they mostly intermarry. Cinderella stories notwithstanding, the rich almost always marry the rich.

As for the Skull and Bones club, the rich are not immune from silliness. Aside from its secrecy and apparently silly rituals, it boils down to an elite fraternity in which the members probably pledge to help each other for the rest of their lives.

Nothing wrong with that. Benjamin Franklin gathered a group of young men in Philadelphia who met regularly and among other things pledged to always help each other succeed. Friends — in high or low places — are not bad things to have.

The thing to remember is that Kerry, despite being a rich kid, did what he certainly didn’t have to do, and that was enlist in the Navy and go to Vietnam and fight. I can’t say he fought for his country, because the Vietnamese communists weren’t threatening our country, but he fought for the South Vietnamese in their civil war. And, in retrospect, he regretted the war and actively campaigned to stop it, as did many combat veterans of that war.

It was, after all, a cruel and stupid piece of American diplomacy. We blundered into a civil war, and the politicians never had a clear objective. It never made sense to be fighting communism in Vietnam, trading with it in Eastern Europe and protecting it in Cuba (as part of the Cuban missile crisis settlement, John Kennedy agreed to prevent any attacks on Cuba from U.S. shores). It was especially galling that the politicians put so many restrictions on the American military that it quickly became clear that the war couldn’t be won.

We can never win a war of attrition on the Asian mainland. People are in surplus over there, and the powers that be will always be more willing to expend more of their people than we are. That’s why Gen. Douglas MacArthur advised America never to get involved in a war on the Asian mainland, advice that Harry Truman, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson ignored.

At any rate, a Kerry-Bush contest will be interesting. We can all expect a dirty campaign, but however much the Republican strategists try to spin it, this campaign, like all campaigns against an incumbent, will be a referendum on George Bush’s administration. If people are happy with it, he’ll be re-elected; if not, whoever the Democratic nominee is will go to the White House.

Look what happened to Bush’s father. Bill Clinton had no credentials, no impressive rsum, yet he beat the elder Bush. Why? Because most people weren’t voting for Clinton, they were voting against Bush. We’ll see how it goes this time.

Charley Reese has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner.