Taking the Measure of John Kerry

Christopher Hitchens [RSS] uses a NYT Book Review essay to skewer John Kerry. He begins with an oft-made observation,

To begin with a small question that I trust is not a trivial or a petty one: how often have you met a self-described Kerry supporter? During the truncated and front-loaded Democratic primaries, it was relatively easy to encounter Dean enthusiasts, Gephardt union activists, Clark fans, Edwards converts, Kucinich militants and even dedicated Sharptonians. (My circle wasn’t wide enough to encompass any Braun campaigners.) But a person who got up every morning and counted the day wasted if he or she hadn’t made a Kerry convert? I’ve asked this question on radio and on television, and on campus and in the other places where people sing, and I’ve heard only a slight shuffling of Democratic feet.

The next several paragraphs note that, although the campaign has not emphasized it, Kerry has had a reasonably serious Senate career. Hitchens also intersperses some excellent one liners, including a parenthetical “He must be the only Catholic Jew with Mayflower-Winthrop roots to have sought the highest office” and a delicious description of his success with the heiress set, “He has succeeded in getting two very striking and independent women to marry him, the second of whom, though she sometimes resembles a large-print version of Bianca Jagger, is nonetheless living proof that ketchup is not a vegetable.”

The next several paragraphs delve into Kerry’s mixed record on Vietnam. Hitchens points out the paradox that Keery is both a trumpeter of his hero status who seemingly insists that his war service makes him more fit to lead than anyone who hasn’t so served on the one hand and yet a vehement anti-war activist, dogged supporter of draft evader Bill Clinton, and selector of non-vet John Edwards to be his running mate. This leads into Kerry’s interesting relationship with the truth.

In the same speech where King Henry V refers to his ”band of brothers” — ”we few, we happy few” — he also lampoons the way in which veterans become bores and blowhards in later life: ”But he’ll remember with advantages / What feats he did that day.” This does not apply only to soldiering. From the podium in Boston, and by an astute deployment of the ”we” pronoun instead of the ”I,” Kerry managed to suggest that he had been part of the ”we” who marched for civil rights. As the Boston Globe truth-squadders point out, he has tried this before. In his 1984 Senate race, he gave out a flier that began, ”Ever since I worked as a young volunteer in John Kennedy’s presidential campaign,” and that further claimed, ”Back then, I joined the struggle for voting rights in the South.” Neither boast has the merit of literal truth. Kerry may not have taken part in the 1960 election at all, and has since had to admit that the most he could have done for the Freedom Ride buses was to give them a cheering wave as they set off. Though this may have signaled that ”help is on the way,” it was not exactly ”reporting for duty.”

Quite.

The closer is rather devastating as well:

I had not known until I read these books that Kerry had had his first marriage annulled, signifying in effect that he was never wed to Julia Thorne, the mother of his children, in the first place. How odd that he would invoke one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most pitiless dogmas while treating so many of its other teachings as essentially optional. The general effect he has striven to create is the opposite: that of a man who dislikes ruthlessness. After all, Kerry is against the death penalty, except in cases where the perpetrator has done something really heinous or unpopular. And he stopped saying ”Bring it on” when he realized it made him sound ridiculous. But here may be the inescapable contradiction. When he voted against the MX missile and the Star Wars program, he was opposing the arms race and the implied ”first strike” doctrine. But when he voted against the precision-guided weapons — like the Apache helicopter and the Patriot missile — that have helped make possible the relatively bloodless removal of aggressive despotisms, he was failing to see that the Pentagon, too, had assimilated some of the important lessons of Vietnam.

He still gives, to me at any rate, the impression of someone who sincerely wishes that this were not a time of war. When critical votes on the question come up, Kerry always looks like a dog being washed. John McCain was not like this, when a president he despised felt it necessary to go into Kosovo. We are looking at a man who would make, or would have made, a perfectly decent peacetime president.

Mark Steyn also has his fun at Kerry’s expense.

So what are we to make of Sen. Kerry’s self-seared 30-year-old false memory of Christmas in Cambodia with its vast accumulation of precise details? Of being shot at by the Khmer Rouge (unlikely in 1968) and of South Vietnamese troops drunkenly celebrating Christmas (as only devout Buddhists know how)?

It’s not about dates and places. For Kerry, his Yuletide mission was an epiphany: the moment when he realized his government was lying to the people about what was going on. This is the turning point, the moment that set the young Kerry on the path from brave young war volunteer to fierce anti-war activist.

And it turns out it’s total bunk.

Thirty-five years on, having no appealing campaign themes, the senator decides to run for president on his biography. But for the last 20 years he’s been a legislative non-entity. Before that, he was accusing his brave band of brothers of mutilation, rape and torture. He spent his early life at Swiss finishing school and his later life living off his wife’s inheritance from her first husband. So, biography-wise, that leaves four months in Vietnam, which he talks about non-stop. That 1986 Senate speech is typical: It was supposed to be about Reagan policy in Central America, but like so many Kerry speeches and interviews somehow it winds up with yet another self-aggrandizing trip down memory lane.

Ouch.

Finally, the NYT editorial board, which will almost certainly endorse Kerry for election, nonetheless has similar doubts. Their lead editorial, “About That Iraq Vote,”[RSS] is less than kind.

We’re sure Mr. Kerry is right in claiming that the White House, in its negotiations with the Senate, played down the possibility that the vote would lead to actual conflict. That does not mean the public will be satisfied with an explanation that he authorized an invasion under the presumption it would not happen. After nearly two years of working with the Bush administration, Congress had a very good idea of how Mr. Bush viewed the world, what advisers he listened to, and what he was likely to do with American troops if Congress gave him a broad authorization to go to war. It was for precisely that reason that some senators, led by Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar, struggled unsuccessfully to narrow down the resolution. Senator Biden says Senator Kerry worked with him behind the scenes.

But for the most part Mr. Kerry, who voted against the first Persian Gulf war, tailored his positions on this one to his presidential ambitions. He was more hawkish when the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination seemed to be Richard Gephardt, and more dovish when Howard Dean picked up momentum. At the height of the Dean insurgency, both Mr. Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, decided to oppose spending $87 billion to underwrite the occupation of Iraq that they both voted to authorize.

***

There are undoubtedly circumstances that call for military action, but we would like to know whether, as president, John Kerry would insist on a higher threshold than he settled for as an opportunistic senator in 2002.

My serious memory of presidential races goes back only to 1980, maybe 1976. I honestly can’t remember a presidential nominee of either party that was so listlessly supported by the party faithful. Even the weak candidates were admired by the base, even if they were surefire losers. Kerry could well win and yet seems to have no real support.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.