One thing that just about everybody seems to accept about John Kerry is that he was a “war hero.” Kerry’s staged arrival in Boston for the Democratic convention in a water taxi, surrounded by some of his old crew from the Mekong Delta; the introduction to his nomination acceptance speech by his “band of brothers,” and the first lines of that speech—“I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty”—followed by a snappy salute, all made clear that, in a time of war, his military service is his calling card. In reality, however, Kerry was something else, unique in American history (and in the annals of presidential candidacies). For though he indeed served valiantly in Vietnam, his service wasn’t of the Audie Murphy type—known and celebrated immediately at the time for its own sake. Rather, Kerry’s Vietnam valor became important only as a prelude, a bona fide that gave weight to his true debut on the public stage: as the galvanizing figure of Vietnam Veterans against the War—not so much a war hero as an anti-war hero.
Kerry’s protest stance is no mere footnote to his biography; it has defined his political career, lies at the heart of his appeal, and constitutes a crucial flaw in his fitness to lead. It is a flaw that his generation (my own) has struggled with, often unsuccessfully: recognizing that it is long past time for us to outgrow the self-righteousness of protest and, instead, make the difficult decisions of adult leadership. Kerry’s career offers little assurance that he is ready for the heavy responsibility of the White House; it is a career, rather, conducted very much in the spirit of the Volvo owners’ bumper stickers that I often see here in his home town of Boston: middle-aged executives and parents of grown up children still urging others to “Question Authority.”
To be fair, Kerry was indeed in charge on the Navy swift boat in Vietnam and he did make combat leadership decisions. But he didn’t return stateside as a commander offering advice on how to win the war. Instead, he captured the nation’s attention with his question, asked rhetorically in Congressional testimony: “How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?” Was the mistake to fight the Communist North? Or was the mistake one of strategy and tactics? A forthright stand either way would have marked Kerry as a leader. Instead, he adopted the mantle of mere protest.
Kerry’s Senate career has followed a similar path of critique rather than constructive proposal. Whatever one thinks of the other ultraliberal senator from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy’s congressional career can show genuine legislative accomplishment—putting his name on consequential bills from the widespread establishment of health maintenance organizations to the requirement that employers offer family and medical leaves to employees. Kerry, though, has “in the majority made his name as an investigator,” note Michael Barone and Grant Unjifusa in their Almanac of American Politics.
In some of Kerry’s Senate work—such as a probe of the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International—he’s struck some pay dirt. But he was also “spending some time up blind alleys with klieg lights,” Barone and Unjifusa observe. The key point here, however, is not whether Kerry the investigator was on solid ground but that his career preference has been that of the critic, not the sponsor, the tearer down rather than the builder up. Even some of his limited legislative accomplishments—for instance, his 1994 fight to limit development of nuclear breeder reactors—have been fundamentally negative.
So, too, did Kerry’s acceptance speech at the convention reflect the view that the spirit of protest provides the high points of American political history. He invoked the greatest hits of 1960s protest and saw his role in public life to deliver more of the same: the sixties era, he pronounced, was a “great journey—a time to march for civil rights, for the environment, for women and for peace. We believed we could change the world. And you know what? We did. But we’re not finished. The journey isn’t over. The march isn’t over.” Kerry seemed like an aging one-hit wonder rock star, who’d suddenly found that his song had come back in style. At last, another president could be charged with misleading the nation about war. Kerry’s wife, Teresa, expressed the protest mind-set in her convention speech too: “In America,” she said, “the true patriots are those who dare to speak the truth to power.”
The assumptions here are quite remarkable—that it will be others, not the true patriots, who will be in charge, exercising power. This adolescent attitude has been the trap of Kerry’s generation—the feel-good politics that comes from telling off someone else as opposed to the risky politics of adulthood, such as going to war without definitive information but in the assured presence of terrible threat. For whatever reasons—cultural and personal—George W. Bush stands apart from this generational hubris. He has taken risks and stands to defend them. By all evidence, John Kerry remains stuck in the protest politics that launched his career.